You may have mastered the art of preparing gluten-free meals for your school-aged children when they are at home but tackling school lunches still poses some definite challenges. Until school cafeterias begin offering gluten-free meals as the norm your child’s lunch box is their best friend. Here’s some tips on determining what is gluten-safe at cafeterias and tips on packing your kids a gluten-free lunch.
If your child has been officially diagnosed with Celiac Disease and can provide a doctor’s letter verifying this then they are covered under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and eligible for accommodation with a special gluten-free meal at public school cafeterias.
If your child is only gluten-sensitive (no positive diagnosis of Celiac Disease) then it up to your school district to determine whether they will accommodate a request for gluten-free meals. Because more and more children are being diagnosed with Celiac Disease your school or college cafeteria may already have experience in providing gluten-free lunches and may agree to provide a gluten-free lunch even if your child is only gluten-sensitive. Some school districts have entire gluten-free menu plans and your child may be able to choose meals in advance.
Check with your school’s “504 plan coordinator” (named for the section of the Americans with Disabilities act that applies to public schools), a school counselor, or the school’s special education department to start the process of filing a 504 plan which is the start of coordinating a gluten-free school cafeteria meal.
Gluten Free Living magazine has an excellent article on this process.
Even if your child does not qualify under the ADA to be accommodated with a gluten-free meal then your child may still be able to eat gluten-free at their school cafeteria by judiciously choosing what they order from the regular menu offerings.
More and more schools are adding salad bars to their cafeterias. Nearly everything in salad bars is gluten-free with these general exceptions:
- Some soft cheeses (processed cheese, cottage cheese)
- Many blue cheeses
- Some processed meats
- Some salad dressings that are thickened with wheat starch
All unprocessed lettuces and greens, vegetables, and fruits are gluten-free.
Most cheeses like Cheddar, Mozzarella, and Monterey Jack are safe but avoid processed cheese, cottage cheese, and blue cheese because they can contain gluten. In general, cheeses that are easy to shred are usually safe to consume.
Hardboiled eggs still in their shell are safe. Verify that no additional ingredients have been added to diced hardboiled eggs before consuming.
Most cooked ham and turkey meats are safe as long as flavorings like “modified food starch” (always made from corn in the USA) are used instead of “wheat starch”. Check with your school’s cafeteria manager to confirm that the meats they use in their salad bar are gluten-safe.
A vinaigrette dressing is your child’s safest choice or no dressing at all which many children prefer anyway.
Your child may be able to put together a gluten-free salad that contains lettuce, tomatoes, carrots, celery, some hardboiled egg, and some grated cheddar cheese. If you can confirm the salad bar meats are gluten-free then they may be able to enjoy some cooked turkey or ham too.
This is a great improvement over the days when school lunches were a scoopful of gluten-laden macaroni and cheese and a “mystery meat” patty that often contained more wheat gluten than meat.
A la carte menus
If the school cafeteria does not have a salad bar then the a la carte menu is your child’s best choice. The following items often show up on a la carte menus and are good gluten-free options:
- Orange juice
- Apple Juice
- Milk (unflavored)
- Cheddar cheese sticks
- Mozzarella cheese sticks (string cheese)
- Carrot sticks
- Celery sticks
- Hardboiled eggs
- Hummus (chickpea) dips that are marked "Gluten Free" or "GF" on their packaging
- Yogurts with no toppings that are marked “Gluten Free” or “GF” on their packaging
- Unflavored corn tortilla chips with tomato (red) salsa
- Unflavored Lays Classic potato chips
- Unflavored Fritos Original corn chips
- Unflavored popcorn
When all else fails pack a gluten-free lunch
Before the advent of readily available gluten-free breads packing a school lunch was more difficult. Now there are many gluten-free breads on the market making it possible to pack an easy gluten-free lunch for your child.
Two readily available gluten-free bread brands are Udi’s (located in your grocer’s refrigerator or freezer sections) and Trader Joe’s store brand gluten-free bread. Udi’s is available in white, whole grain, and cinnamon raisin varieties. Trader Joe’s is available in Whole Grain and White Sandwich Bread varieties.
These standard lunch box sandwich fillings require no refrigeration and are gluten-free or have no intentionally added gluten:
- Peanut butter
- Most jams and jellies
- Tuna in pouches or EZ-open cans that is marked “Gluten Free” or “GF” on the packaging. If the package isn’t marked then confirm that wheat is not listed in the allergen information in the ingredients list.
- Hellman’s Real Mayonnaise To Go packets
- Pouches of SPAM Single “Classic” sandwich meat
- Cans of SPAM sandwich spread
- Underwood Deviled Ham Spread
Lunch Box Fillers
It’s always nice to have a few snacks in your lunch box. Here’s some great lunch box fillers that are gluten-free. Note that some of these items require refrigeration. You may want to invest in a soft-sided insulated lunch box that is designed to hold a reusable gel ice pack that can be frozen the night before and inserted into the lunch box in the morning to keep the contents cold until lunchtime.
These snacks do not require refrigeration if left at room temperature for just a few hours:
- Celery sticks
- Carrot sticks
- Cherry tomatoes
- Uncooked broccoli florets
- Applesauce in single serving containers if marked "Gluten Free" or "GF" on the package
- Unpeeled bananas
- Clementines and Tangerines (brand names “Cuties” or “Halos”)
- Single serving cups of Dole diced peaches, apples, or pears “in 100% fruit juice”
- Rice cakes (with or without a small container of peanut butter)
- 100% corn tortillas
- Snack-sized bags of Fritos Original (unflavored) corn chips
- Snack-sized bags of Lays Classic (unflavored) potato chips
Keep these items cold with a gel ice pack
- Single serving hummus containers (check the package to confirm the flavor is gluten-free)
- Cheddar cheese sticks
- Mozzarella (string cheese) sticks
- Yogurt in cups (check that it is marked “Gluten Free” or “GF”)
- Hard boiled eggs
If you need additional lunch box ideas the Celiac.org website has a great list of gluten-free processed foods available in the USA.