Top | Dinner Guest Blog
Welcome to the peanut-free lunch
(post, Cindy Burke)
When Allison started first grade in September, we received a note that said her classroom would be a “peanut-free zone.” To avoid problems for nut-allergic students, all peanut products would be taboo — not only in treats brought for the entire classroom, but even in individual student lunches.
Her classroom is not unusual in banning all peanut products. At many schools across America, the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich — that childhood lunchbox staple — has been permanently banned.
I wouldn’t want to endanger any child’s health, so I strictly follow the peanut-free rule for school lunches. I have a lot of sympathy for parents of children with severe food allergies. But I have to admit that my first thought when I read the note was more selfish than sympathetic.
“Oh, great,” I groused. “The only kind of sandwich that my kid will eat has just been banned from her lunch.”
[%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="Scones with bacon, cheddar, and chives make a great lunchbox treat."]
One of the other moms in Allison’s class took it even harder: the weekend before school started, she had industriously prepared 30 peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches (crusts removed, pre-bagged) and frozen them for quick ready-to-eat lunches.
The last time she and I talked, she pleaded for lunchbox suggestions. “I am seriously out of ideas,” she told me. “Sometimes my daughter’s whole lunch comes back home uneaten.”
Since I try to keep trans fats and high-fructose corn syrup out of Allison’s diet, I can’t take a short cut and feed her those pre-packaged boxed lunches marketed to children (yep, I’m anti-Lunchables). That means I’m on the line every morning to come up with a lunch that is simultaneously easy to make, nutritious, and irresistibly tasty. No pressure!
The first few weeks of nut-free lunches were a challenge, but it forced me to get out of the PB&J rut and be more creative. Here are a few peanut-free lunches that have been successfully tested on my very picky elementary-school student.
I bought bento-box-style containers with four small sections at a Japanese grocery store in Seattle. One section holds sliced strawberries (or grapes, or banana slices). The other sections contain a variety of dips: vanilla yogurt, crushed (peanut-free!) cereal, shredded coconut, and chocolate protein powder. Kids love finger foods, and dipping is fun. I also like these sectioned containers for a dollop of goat-milk yogurt, a scoop of maple-crunch granola, and two kinds of frozen berries (which have thawed by lunchtime).`I also use the sectioned containers to put together a Mediterranean-style lunch of toasted pita triangles, hummus, crumbled feta cheese, and baby carrots.
A hard-boiled egg with a message written on the shell can be fun for kids. You can also dabble with food coloring and a pastry brush if you’re feeling creative. A miniature set of salt and pepper shakers swiped from a first-class airline meal makes it even more special.
Mini-bagels filled with my special Honey Bunny cream-cheese spread are tasty and easy. To make the spread, mash 4 ounces softened cream cheese together with 3 tablespoons honey, 2 tablespoons softened butter, ¼ cup finely shredded carrots, and ¼ cup raisins. Spread a thick layer on a plain mini-bagel (save the leftover spread for another lunch). To gild the lily, sprinkle a little cinnamon and sugar on top of the cream-cheese mixture.
If you have a panini grill, make a little grilled sandwich of Gouda cheese, thin-sliced salami or turkey, and slivers of roasted pepper. Use a sturdy bread like ciabatta or a rustic white bread and grill it lightly. Grilled sandwiches are great cold and have a pleasing crunch that kids love. Grilled sliced prosciutto and Havarti cheese with thin slices of Granny Smith apple is another idea. Chocolate-hazelnut spread (the name brand here is Nutella, but it contains trans fats) with a light glaze of raspberry jam is also excellent as a room-temperature grilled sandwich.
Falafel wraps have been a surprisingly popular lunch treat. Crunchy falafel nuggets, drizzled very lightly with tahini sauce and wrapped in a soft pita, are topped with shredded carrots. This wrap stays crunchy even when it’s eaten cold. Cucumber slices and grapes go well with falafel.
Try bacon, cheddar, and chive scones, sliced and buttered, or spread with a little plain cream cheese.
Once in a while, for a special treat* (or if I’m out of ideas), I make a sandwich out of white bread smeared with chocolate spread or butter and homemade blackberry jam. Not a scrap of sandwich comes back home on those days.
It’s important to keep children with severe allergies safe while they are at school, and we’ve found that it’s really not that difficult to pack nut-free lunches. If you find yourself in a similar situation, my suggestion is to get creative with school lunches, try lots of new foods, and make it work for everyone.