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.
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)
*raisins (tiny boxes if it has to be individually packaged)
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)
*natural applesauce (if you can bring your own, here are some fun ways to preserve apples)
strawberries and other berries
*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)
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)
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
*Stretch Island fruit leather
Bare Fruit apple chips (or any brand that has real ingredients, like just "apples")
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)
*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.
If you missed the last Monday Mission, click here.
Disclosure: There are affiliate links in this post to Amazon, Mabel’s Labels and Tropical Traditions from which I will earn some commission if you make a purchase. See my full disclosure statement here.
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