Allergy-Friendly School Lunches From Around the World
“Mommy!” my 5-year-old daughter Kirina screamed as she came running off the school bus one afternoon. She was waving her pink lunchbox around in a frenzy and promptly thrust it in my face when she ran up to me. “My best friend Pia had to leave my table at lunchtime because of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich!”
I didn’t understand why, at first, but after a few moments it struck me. What a big “oops” on my part. Most schools are peanut-free environments due to the number of children with allergies. And Kirina’s little friend Pia was one of those children.
Clearly, I had not kept up with the times.
When I was a kid I routinely packed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch. There were no rules when it came to what you could or could not bring to school. Even now, when I’m at a loss for what to eat for lunch, I’ve been known to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and wolf it down with glass of cold milk.
All of that has changed, however. As parents of children with food allergies will tell you, when you are allergic to certain foods, your body’s immune system reacts negatively to the exposure. Reactions can range from mild (an itchy mouth or hives) to downright serious (difficulty breathing, anaphylaxis, even death). A meal can be a very scary event for some children, especially in a school setting.
According to www.foodallergy.org, researchers believe up to 15 million Americans have food allergies, including 5.9 million children under age 18. That works out to 1 in 13 children, or about two in every classroom. More than 170 foods have been reported to cause allergic reactions, but eight major food allergens – milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and crustacean shellfish – are responsible for most of the serious food allergy reactions in the United States. Alarmingly, the prevalence of food allergies in children increased by 50 percent between 1997 and 2011, with peanut and tree nut allergies on a sharp rise.
Though we don’t know exactly why these allergies are on the rise, we can take steps to protect our friends and classmates. That means packing your child allergen-free lunches.
I love introducing children to new flavors and turned to my favorite sources of inspiration for advice when making over Kirina’s lunchbox: parents around the world. For my recently published baby food cookbook, Around the World in 80 Purees: Easy Recipes for Global Baby Food (Quirk Books, 2016), I focused on how to feed babies spices, seasonings, and diverse ingredients from the very first bites.
Kirina has grown into such a diverse eater, I thought, why not continue the “Around the World” theme for her packed lunches by creating menus with an international flair.
Each week I selected one country as a theme. I researched what kids were eating for lunch in those countries and re-created allergen-free versions of the dishes I found. The results were incredible! Kirina looked forward to the different offerings and bonus, her friends with allergies were not relegated to another table. I also loved that each week we got to savor what different cultures eat for lunch, always a fun lesson for anyone that enjoys food.
You might be asking, will this be too complicated to put together every morning? If you are like me and find yourself stressed out in the mornings over what to pack for lunch, try this simple fix: leftovers for lunch. We have much more time to make a substantial meal the night before, and packing up the leftovers in small containers makes the next morning a breeze when preparing lunchboxes. Meals that keep especially well are noodle and rice dishes, soups, and stews. Heat them up and put them in a stainless-steel thermos so your little one will have a warm lunch. Items like homemade applesauce or vegetable salads are great when made over the weekend and pre-packed in small containers that are ready to grab and go for lunch. Another favorite is yogurt, which can be layered with fruit to make a parfait, or can be blended with a touch of cinnamon or cardamom for a twist of flavor. Pack the night before for ease.
Here are some sample menu ideas for you to try with your family. These might seem ambitious at first, but cooking them for dinner the night before will make these lunch ideas easy to accomplish.
Tri-colored pasta dressed with butter, parmesan and basil
Biscotti or nut-free cookies
Cucumber and tomato salad with seasoned vinaigrette
Roti (Indian flat bread) roll-ups filled with curried potatoes, banana and nut butter, or your choice of other allergen-free filling
Basmati rice pilaf
Saffron and honey yogurt cup
Soba noodles with vegetables
Carrot and apple slaw
American with a Twist
Sesame butter with jam sandwich
Hummus with vegetables or sesame crackers
Cucumber, tomato, mint and feta salad
Pita filled with your choice of protein
Hummus with veggies
Chicken breast in herbed cream sauce
Crackers with brie
Yogurt with cinnamon pears
Coconut chicken curry
Pineapple and watermelon salad