School Cafeteria Meal Options for Kids with Food Allergies

By Jill Weisenberger, MS, RDN, CDE, FAND
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Does your child have a food allergy, intolerance or sensitivity? Partner with your school's foodservice and nutrition staff Tweet this (many of whom are registered dietitian nutritionists) to find safe and nutritious options.

The best way for schools to meet the needs of children with food allergies is to work together as a team with the child, the child's parents and the healthcare provider, says Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a school food and nutrition director in Arizona. "Effective communication is key to helping everyone understand the specifics of each food allergy and to try to serve appealing menu items that the children enjoy eating," he says.

Meet with Staff

Make time for a field trip to the school to meet with the cafeteria manager. Be sure the staff recognizes your child and they know the problem foods or ingredients. Additionally, identify a go-to person because there should be at least one individual your child is comfortable asking if a food is safe to eat, Delbridge suggests.

Once you've made the initial contact with the foodservice and nutrition department, obtain the monthly menu, Delbridge says. Review it with your child so you both know the acceptable menu options. Feel free to ask for ingredient lists of prepared foods and recipes for scratch items.

"Schools should do their best to make sure they have accurate labels and information on all of the food items they serve," Delbridge says. "Having your food ingredients and nutrition facts online can be an excellent resource for parents and students to use when choosing what works best for their specific diet."

Peanut Allergies

Peanut allergies are on the rise. According to the Food Allergy and Anaphylaxis Network, the number of children with a peanut allergy in the U.S. more than tripled between 1997 and 2008. Many schools avoid peanuts and peanut butter in their menus, but not all schools. If peanuts are a concern to your family, be certain to ask which foods may contain them. Peanut butter cookies are an obvious example, but peanuts and peanut products may be hidden in sauces, gravies, salad dressings, chicken salad, egg rolls and a variety of foods from global cuisines. Many schools serve a popular peanut butter substitute made from sunflower seeds, says Delbridge. If your school doesn't already offer it, ask them to have it on hand.

Gluten-free Options

Because of celiac disease or other intolerances, some students avoid gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye. Some easy-to-spot sources of gluten are bread, pasta, pizza and breaded items like fish or chicken nuggets. "Children with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should be taken very seriously and every ingredient should be analyzed to ensure there are no hidden sources of gluten," Delbridge says. "Cross-contamination of serving and prep utensils in the kitchen can be a source of this as well as processed foods, powdered mixes, seasonings and many snack items. Check all labels in advance and be sure to have a specific set of kitchen prep dishes and utensils in the kitchen for food allergies only." The good news, he points out, is that so many wholesome and delicious foods naturally are gluten-free. Among them are fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, lentils, eggs and unflavored milk. Swapping bread and flour tortillas for corn tortillas is another option. So is requesting that your school offer gluten-free bread, he adds.

Most importantly, be prepared by talking to both your child and the school staff. And help your child feel comfortable by focusing on what is safe to eat and not just what must be avoided.

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