It takes me half an hour to pack food any time we have to eat away from home.
Half an hour.
Lunch for one adult and two small children, I’m sure, should not take that long.
And starting in just two short weeks, I’ll be packing a lunch every day for my new first grader. Gluten-free, possibly. Eco-friendly, definitely.
Be still, my beating heart!
Clearly, I need to figure out some streamlining processes for the everyday lunch packing dance. And I will, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll just shake in my boots for a while, because I do not have half an hour every night to devote to lunch.
The Healthy Lunch Box: Sandwich-free Secrets to Packing a Real Food Lunch is loaded with strategies to streamline your packing process, stock your pantry with emergency backups for your backups, and send healthy, delicious food in the lunch box, no matter how old your eater is. Read more and start packing healthier, processed-free lunches today.
A Lunch with No Sandwich?
One reason lunches are more complicated here is the general lack of bread. We haven’t had bread in the house for months after we dabbled with the gluten-free lifestyle, determined that my husband definitely has some sort of issue with gluten, and have since remained “low-gluten”.
Unless I try the soaked no-knead bread again, I won’t be sending any sandwiches in Paul’s lunchbox.
I still have a hunch that gluten isn’t so great for him either, so I’m happy to keep him largely gluten-free as well.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what to pack, and although my previous list of healthy lunch packing ideas has much to offer, remaining gluten-free is another question entirely.
But I’m getting mentally prepared.
Juggling special diets along with the craziness of back-to-school isn’t easy, and sometimes it isn’t cheap. Making sure your kids are nourished midday for best learning is worth the effort, though, and you can definitely pack a lunch to help them eat well while you spend less.
Another post from our contributor, Mary, whose kids have multiple food allergies, also shares so many great ideas for allergy-friendly portable lunches. Worth reading!
Gluten-Free Lunch Ideas
When you can’t pack a sandwich, what can you pack? Think outside the bread. Turn the sandwich inside out and present the contents in a new way (bread is just a carb-filled vehicle for the good stuff inside anyway).
- egg salad (nothing wrong with a bowl of egg salad and a fork. You can also wrap it in a sturdy lettuce leaf or include a splurge item like Nut Thins, gluten-free crackers. Make it with pastured eggs and homemade mayo. My only problem with eggs for lunch is that I have to make sure I don’t serve our best ever scrambled eggs for breakfast, too!)
- tuna salad (just include pickles and a fork. No problem! My culinary creation as a child was tuna salad wrapped in a big lettuce leaf with crushed potato chips on top. Maybe a fun ‘sometimes’ treat to include the chips!)
- corn tortilla wrap or cold homemade refried beans with corn chips (almost any sandwich can be redone in a good corn tortilla – nitrate-free lunchmeat and cheese, leftover chicken, PBJ, or a cold burrito)
- grain-free crepes also make any sandwich into a wrap (my family was pleasantly surprised that the coconut flour crepes from Health Home & Happiness’s menu planner don’t taste like coconut at all)
- your favorite soup in a thermos (we live on leftovers for lunch, so I know Paul will have a thermos of soup sometimes, heated on the stove for lasting hotness. I’ll rinse the pot and use it for my lunch with Leah later in the day.)
- meat, cheese and a dip (think Lunchables without the crackers and additives. Last week my kids turned down leftovers, even nachos, three times and opted for plain chicken, cheese, and mustard with a few veggies on a plate. Kids don’t require a lot of fanfare; just train them to eat simply. You can even make your own lunch meat. It’s super easy!)
- a dressed up salad (salads aren’t the most immediately kid-friendly meal, but if you add enough goodies: veggies, nuts, dried fruit, cheese, frozen peas, meat, ETC. and a great dressing, you might have a winner.)
- quinoa or millet salad (cook any whole grain and add a favorite vinaigrette, beans, veggies, and even meat to make it a main course. Check out our favorite cold grain salad and just sub GF grains.)
- Mexican beans and rice and tortilla chips (warm and send in a thermos)
- hard-boiled egg (cut in half is easier to handle; often a good part of a picnic style meal with cheese, nuts and other finger foods to eat. A sprinkle of unrefined sea salt is great on top!)
- gluten-free crackers with toppings (basic cheese slices are great, or try mini Nut Thins sandwiches with natural peanut butter, yogurt cheese, jelly, raw honey, or some combination of those. Or you can make a variety of simple gluten free crackers like these soaked teff crackers or gluten free “Wheat Thin” crackers.)
- leftovers: (use a thermos OR ask your kids what they might eat cold. My daughter would eat cold potatoes and I’d gladly munch on cold stir fry, for example.)
- Even More Ideas: Find more grain-free lunch ideas from my affiliate partner’s eBook, The Grain-Free Lunchbox.
The Mexican beans and rice and 30 other beans dishes are available in The Everything Beans Book.
Fruits and Veggies:
The easiest way to skirt around just about any food restriction is to stick with real fruits and vegetables. Most kids love a piece of fruit in their lunch, but presenting veggies so they’re not brought home limp and warm can be a challenge.
- Veggie ideas: cherry tomatoes, carrots, pea pods, cucumbers, cauliflower or broccoli spears, celery, fresh green beans, colored peppers – cut fun shapes to encourage dipping
- Dip ideas: hummus, homemade yogurt with spices or yogurt cheese dip, ranch dressing, even ketchup if it’ll get them to eat their veggies!
- Frozen peas are simple and tasty!
- Apple slices with natural peanut butter, sunbutter or almond butter to dip
- Whole fruits: bananas, oranges, apples, pears, plums, melon, grapes, cherries, strawberries, peaches, nectarines…try to stick with what is more or less in season and watch the Dirty Dozen list. Be sure to ask your child if they need the fruit cut for ease of eating or time constraints; I hate to think of big pieces of leftover fruit tossed out simply because the child ran out of time.
- Dried fruits: these organic dried fruits are one way to avoid chemical additives common in most dried fruit. I have a ton of homemade strawberry fruit rolls waiting for school lunches, too.
- Freeze-dried fruits: ideal for toddlers, these lightweight wonders are pricey, but super fun and last halfway to forever.
Other Side Dishes:
Fruits and veggies do not a full tummy make. It’s important to make sure your child’s stomach isn’t rumbling well before the final school bell, so you want to make sure you have a nice balance of fats and proteins, maybe some fiber. Think dairy, nuts, gluten-free grains, beans and legumes, healthy fats in dips, etc.
- homemade yogurt with vanilla and honey, fresh or frozen fruit, applesauce or homemade granola mixed in. This is a staple in our lunches at home, and I can only imagine sending a little one-cup glass dish every day just like my husband does for work.
- cottage cheese with various fun things mixed in
- trail mix (don’t pay a factory to mix together nuts and dried fruit. Do it yourself with crispy nuts and even home-dehydrated fruits)
- potato salad
- gluten-free coconut muffins (recipe can be found in the newly expanded Healthy Snacks to Go eBook along with over 45 real food snack recipes – click HERE to learn more.)
- gluten-free apple flax muffins
- granola bars with GF flour
- homemade granola with a thermos of milk on the side
- homemade pudding
- green smoothie (freeze first and it should thaw to spoonable consistency by lunchtime)
- almond power bars
- Larabars (splurge) or homemade date and nut bars (14 varieties in Healthy Snacks to Go)
Considerations: Talk to your Child’s Teacher
Just as you’d have a discussion with your child’s teacher if he or she needed special academic support, it’s really important for teachers to understand special dietary needs.
Whether your child has a serious allergy or a gluten sensitivity, a new diet can be foreign territory for a teacher. I recommend bringing a helpful list of foods that your child CAN eat, especially if snacks are a community affair. It’s almost guaranteed that the class will eat something together throughout the year, and a pizza party is not a very good reward for a gluten-free child.
You also need to make sure that the teacher understands the ramifications of your child getting his or her hands on a forbidden food. The teacher must understand that the food allergy is no laughing matter, and that the child can’t just “have a little cheat.”
Trading food is a sore spot for those on specific diets. Your first and best line of defense is to make sure your child knows the rules. Have a serious consequence in place for trading food. Even if you ask the teacher to police food trading, they can’t catch everything, and most lunch eating takes place far beyond the confines of the classroom.
Nut Allergies: a Different Beast
I’m happy that I can be in charge of what my son eats at school, and my dietary choices don’t really have to impact the other kids. But not all dietary restrictions are that way.
Since nut allergies are airborne and much more serious, the entire classroom needs to be involved in keeping the child safe.
If your child has a nut allergy, you’re probably well-versed in explaining the issue to teachers and insisting on a nut-free room.
If one of your child’s classmates has a nut allergy, I beg you to be understanding. Nut allergies can kill. The consequence is very serious, and a peanut butter sandwich eaten by a neighbor (your child, perhaps) could send a child with a peanut allergy into anaphylactic shock.
Even if PBJ is the only food your child will eat for lunch – and I sympathize with you, I really do! – the nut allergy needs to be prioritized first over the picky eater, which is not life-threatening.
I taught third grade for two years and had three kids with peanut allergies. We ate lunch in the room and had to have safe areas for peanuts and special clean-up considerations. I made a “no peanut snacks” rule and a “peanut only once a week” for lunch rule. Some parents balked, but it simply had to be.
One parent of a child with the peanut allergy brought in a few pages of peanut-free lunch ideas that I copied and sent home to all the families. I thought that was a super idea and very supportive of the needs of everyone.
Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. See my full disclosure statement here.