Healthy School Treat Ideas when You’re Not Allowed to Make “Homemade”

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Tons of healthy snack ideas for when you can't bring homemade foods to school but have to have an ingredient list

As a former elementary school teacher, anything having to do with kids and healthy food grabs my interest and I get pretty passionate about it.

Over the past few years, more and more schools are moving to a "no homemade" rule for community snacks, birthday treats, and parties. The reason isn’t to support the food processing industry and tie up make-from-scratch cooks with red tape, squashing all healthy food in schools. It’s actually to keep kids with food allergies safe, since an ingredient list is the only foolproof, standardized way to know "what’s in there?"

As much as I know these rules are important, they cause us real foodies to throw our hands up in despair –

Bring food with an ingredient list? Why, that’s just the sort of thing I’m teaching my child to avoid!

We’re not doomed to pretzels and Goldfish crackers, folks. There are real foods with ingredients lists, and better yet, there are plenty of one-ingredient foods that are exempt from needing a list.

As I mentioned in this morning’s "teaching kids how to recognize healthy food" post, fruits and vegetables are something everyone with almost any nutritional philosophy can agree on being healthy, so you’ll notice I lean heavily on those two categories.

Real Food Healthy Kid Snacks (with ingredients)

An asterisk (*) denotes snacks that are singly packaged and can simply be passed out without napkins or splitting up a larger package or cutting anything.

  • *cheese sticks

  • pre-sliced cheese

Tons of healthy snack ideas for when you can't bring homemade foods to school but have to have an ingredient list

  • nitrate-free lunchmeat, rolled with cheese on site if possible

  • pickles with no artificial food coloring?

  • *freeze-dried fruit (Costco has single-serve packages, and we get it from Tropical Traditions in a bit larger bags)

Tons of healthy snack ideas for when you can't bring homemade foods to school but have to have an ingredient list

  • *raisins (tiny boxes if it has to be individually packaged)

  • dried apricots

  • dried cranberries

  • dates

  • dried apples

  • prunes

  • banana chips (if you can find a brand that is unsweetened or only lightly sweetened and doesn’t taste like cardboard – we tried the ones at Country Life and yikes – cardboard. Zero taste.)

  • plain yogurt and something to mix in on site that also has an ingredient list, like berries and honey – be sure to ask permission before assuming that mixing something on site negates the "no homemade rule."

  • cottage cheese (with canned peaches in juice on top, or another fun fruit)

Tons of healthy snack ideas for when you can't bring homemade foods to school but have to have an ingredient list

  • *whole apples

  • *plums

  • grapes

  • strawberries and other berries

  • pomegranate seeds

  • *bananas (although best served cut in half to reduce waste)

  • oranges (if you are allowed to cut or peel them)

  • *clementines (if you’re not allowed to peel)

Tons of healthy snack ideas for when you can't bring homemade foods to school but have to have an ingredient list

  • any melon or pineapple, if you’re allowed to cut (or buy the pre-cut at the store)

  • frozen fruit, thawed only partway, mixed together in a fruit salad

  • *baby carrots (sometimes come in pre-packaged baggies)

  • mini cucumbers

  • cherry or grape tomatoes

  • pea pods (in a package via Costco)

  • maybe homemade ranch dressing, if you can mix in seasonings to sour cream on site

  • otherwise dip veggies in packaged hummus or guacamole – some brands aren’t bad – check labels for weird ingredients (hummus has sesame in it, so you need to know what allergies kids in the class might have)

  • celery with cream cheese and raisins for a nut-free “ants on a log” – kids spread the cheese themselves

  • frozen peas

  • *Stretch Island fruit leather

  • Bare Fruit apple chips (or any brand that has real ingredients, like just "apples")

  • *if no nut allergies: Larabars (no sweetener) or KIND bars (sweetened) – although both are hard to swallow because they’re so much less expensive to make homemade…

  • if no nut allergies: make trail mix on site (although it’s highly unlikely you could do this, since nut allergies are often the cause of the “no homemade” rule) Use sunflower seeds, dried fruit if that would work better.

  • *Oskri coconut bars (although pretty sweet, and stay away from the protein bars)

  • *That’s It Fruit bars 

  • *any popsicle made of 100% fruit and juice with no sweetener, if they’re out there to be found (readers? what brands?)

  • salsa and organic tortilla chips (huge bag at Costco)

  • some bagged popcorn wouldn’t be too bad – check what fat it’s popped in. Skinny Pop from Costco isn’t too bad. Popcorn isn’t GMO, so you have less to worry about with organic vs. conventional.

  • some other crunchy snacks aren’t usually perfect (especially in the industrial vs. traditional fat category) but much better than most: Beanitos, Snapeas, Way Better Snacks. Honest Chips are ideal, but all of these are very pricey to be buying to share.

Readers, help: I’m sure I’m missing plenty! What could be dipped in pizza sauce, for example?

It’s a really hard job to dream up possible packaged snacks, because I hardly buy packaged foods. It’s also difficult because my standards are so high. Whereas many people would have "whole grain crackers" or "whole grain tortillas" on a list of healthy snack options for kids, my filter goes beyond just "it’s 100% whole  grain, therefore it’s healthy."

I also consider the fats (almost always industrial oils and often trans fats in tortillas, crackers and cookies in particular), and the process of extrusion must be taken into account (shaped crackers? No, thank you!). Add to that the perils of gluten for my family in particular, and it’s tricky to sit down with a box of crackers with me.

In my own kids’ school, I’m very, very fortunate – not only do they still allow homemade goodies, but we also just adopted a new policy for birthday parties: The birthday child will bring a book to gift to the class which will have a place of honor for the week. No junky food, no worrying about whose definition of healthy food to use, and no cheap toys filling my house either.

If your school is frustrating you with a "no homemade" policy, maybe you want to bring a totally different idea to the table – with no food in the picture.

What other ideas do you have? I’ll update the list with good recommendations.

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24 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. says

    Bring food with an ingredient list? Katie you hit the nail on the botton when you said ” us real foodies to throw out hands up in despair ”

    I supose for many people it is hard to take a new approach. Frankly I surprised at the lack of food knowledge in schools of all places.

    But slowly people like you are making a difference in what we eat, so thank you.

    Maybe the birthday girl or boy can bring a fruit salad, do a magic trick show, bring a petting zoo or how about a mini healthy cooking class?

  2. Stephanie F says

    We love :

    Angie’s sea salt popcorn: popcorn, sunflower oil, and sea salt.

    Unique brand sprouted pretzels: organic sprouted while grain wheat, water, organic extra virgin olive oil, salt, yeast, and soda.

    Yummy Earth lollipops: don’t have the list right now but it is available online

    Native Forest Organic canned pineapple: slices: pineapple, organic pineapple juice

    Ak Mak crackers on occasion: don’t have the list right now but I think they do have it on their webpage

    Organic GoGo squeeze applesauce: organic apples, organic apple juice concentrate (only sold at Whole Foods)

    Organic Vermont applesauce: organic apples, vitamin C

    Peanut Butter & Company squeeze pouches: peanuts, evaporated cane juice, palm fruit oil, salt

    Organic sunflower seeds, pepitas, Stoneyfield plain yogurt, cucumbers, Vitacoco coconut water, Earthbound Farms organic raisins and dried cranberries, and I know it’s not the best but it is better:

    Haagen Dazs chocolate ice cream is made only of cream, skim milk, sugar, cocoa and egg yolks. Their strawberry is made of whole food ingredients too but neither are organic and both have regular sugar so they’re special ocassion sweets.

  3. says

    Those are great lists, Katie and Stephanie.

    People do need to read the ingredient list if part of the package is dried fruit. Many of them contain sulfites to preserve the color (and it does a great job at that). I’m horrifically reactive to sulfites, even a tiny amount, and have to be especially careful about dried fruit (and i can’t have communion wine).

    On a side note, i just have begun drying the apples from our tree and learned that Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) powder does the same job as sulfites (lemon juice is suppose to work too). I soaked my apples in a quart of water with about 2 tsp Vitamin C powder, and they are retaining their color beautifully.

  4. Stephanie F says

    If something is labeled organic it has to be non GMO, right? But just because it’s non GMO does not mean it’s organic. Someone please tell me if I’m wrong because I believe I read that on a blog but I’m not sure which one.

    • LB says

      Yes, “USDA Organic/100% Organic” means non-GMO. However, it can be made with some organic and have some GMO. Also, if it is non-GMO it does not have to be organic… it can just be “conventionally grown” (with pesticides).

  5. Stephanie says

    This is a great idea, and I just want to add that as a mom to an anaphylactic child allergic to nuts. Please be careful with ice creams, as even at the factory there is cross contamination. Also, many people allergic to nuts are allergic to coconut and it is now classified as a tree nut. I applaud you for making the list. Many families with multiple food allergies are actually whole food families. My family is and we bring in bagged carrots or organic apples, or applesauce along with a treat like a fun pencil or eraser that a child can use. It doesn’t always have to be about food. As always thanks for thinking of the safety of allergic children, as it really is so important.

  6. Erin says

    Be careful with hummus. Read every label every time. I was going to make homemade hummus, and the bottle of tahini I almost bought had the allergy statement, “Processed in a factory that also processes peanuts/treenuts.” My son has a peanut allergy, so back on the shelf it went. :(

  7. Ashley says

    Our school is a little different. There is no outside food rule and it has to be prepackaged if it’s for the class. Snacks for your own child have to bd healthy and can’t be messy. Unless you put a ice pack it can’t be cold either. So no applesauce, yogurt, messy fruit, dips etc….definitely makes it much harder and makes the list quite small

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