Nut-Free School Lunch Ideas Even PB&J Nuts Will Love

Looking for Nut-Free School Lunch Ideas? Read on for the how’s and why’s of nut-free lunchbox packing. Plus, I have suggestions for economical nut-free protein alternatives and 10 days of delicious nut-free lunchbox ideas.

You’ve got the lunchbox. You’ve got the thermos. You’ve got the ALDI stockpile of snacks-to-last-until-the-end-of-the-world. And now you’ve got the letter. You know the one. The one that says your child is now part of a nut-free school zone. Whether it’s a nut-free school, a nut-free classroom, or just a nut-free buddy table in the lunchroom, you may be having mixed feelings – and that’s okay!

Maybe you’re worried. You don’t know everything about the in’s and out’s of food and nut allergies. What will you make for your child if you can’t rely on PB and Ritz on Friday mornings when the fridge is getting bare? And just how strict do you need to be? 

Or maybe you’re frustrated. Just getting your kiddos out the door with a healthy lunch each day entitles you to wear a superhero cape and maybe you’re not sure you’re ready to earn the nut-free badge to go with it. 

Or maybe you’re curious. You’ve been meaning to go beyond the PB&J, or heck, even beyond the sandwich. This could be your moment!

As a dietitian, classroom Mom, and lunchbox expert, I find that concerns about nut-free schools and classrooms fall into a few key areas. Let’s take a look.

Why parents should cooperate with nut-free schools

No one knows for sure why, but food allergies are on the rise. Today 4-8% of children have food allergies, and 1-2% of these are peanut allergies. This means, on average, there are at least 5 kids with peanut allergies in every school building in the U.S.! Reports show that 18% of kids have had an allergic reaction to something they’ve eaten at school. And peanut allergy is the #1 cause of death by food allergies in this country. That’s a scary stat!

Image of child's hands holding peanutsEspecially with young children, it can be hard to keep nuts isolated in a sack or lunchbox (or a kid’s mouth). Tree nuts can be dusty and we all know how sticky peanut butter is. Children don’t always wash, they roam around, they run their hands over everything and some are liable to use just about anything as a napkin. A nut-allergic child can encounter a surface with trace amounts, touch their face and have a severe reaction. With very serious allergies, even airborne particles can cause a reaction.

As the aunt to two nephews with severe peanut allergies, I know that behind every statistic is a child with a worried family. They fear that someone may ignore the rules or accidentally forget to omit nuts one morning when packing snacks and lunches in a rush. These families send their children off to school each day knowing that food allergies are unpredictable and with each exposure can grow in severity. Although it can be really hard, especially at first, to transition to a nut-free lunchbox, it’s important to put a face on why you’re doing it every morning. Don that superhero cape, because you might be saving a life!

What parents should know about packing nut-free lunches and snacks

Child unpacking backpack at schoolYour classroom or school may be peanut-free, tree-nut-free or both. Be sure to check or, if in doubt, avoid both. Common tree nuts include almonds, brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazelnuts (ie. Nutella), hickory nuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios and walnuts. 

Your child’s teacher or aid is likely not trained to evaluate items for food allergens and she or he probably won’t have time to police everything coming it the door. The system relies on you to be careful. If you’re working from whole ingredients, you can leave out peanuts, peanut butter, and any of the tree nuts. Don’t forget that this can include peanut and nut oils — for example if you’re frying chicken in peanut oil or drizzling a salad with a macadamia oil dressing. If you’re including packaged goods, always read the label (even if you’ve purchased it before – products change). If it says it contains peanuts or tree nuts, or it is processed in the same facility or on shared equipment with tree nuts or peanuts,  keep it for an at-home meal or snack.

Fortunately, seeds are on the safe list! This leaves you sunflower, pumpkin, sesame, chia, baru and many other tasty options. 

What to do if your child will only eat PB&J

This is a big one! Kids have their favorites and it can be discouraging to see your nut-free alternatives staring soggily at you when you clean out the day’s lunchbox. This is where it’s up to you to entice your kids to develop new tastes with creative and inviting options. 

Here’s what I suggest to get you over the hump: delicious and nut-like spreads that work the same way as peanut butter.

Here Are My Favorite Nut-Free Spreads/Peanut Butter and Nut Butter Alternatives:

  • Soybean Butter (like Wowbutter)
  • Sunflower Seed Butter (like Sunbutter)
  • Granola Butter (like Kween)
  • Golden Pea Spread (like Sneaky Chef)
  • Cookie Butter (such as Lotus Biscoff)
  • Baru Seed Butter (Make your own)

What to do if you rely on peanut butter as an affordable protein

Hardboiled eggs are an affordable lunchbox protein choiceThis is one of the biggest challenges parents face when a classroom or school goes nut-free. Peanut butter is protein-rich, full of satisfying fats, and quite affordable. PB&J’s are the staple that make many food budgets work. I’m happy to report, though, that there are quite a few other simple and affordable protein options for school lunches. 

And remember, a child between the ages of 4 and 8 only needs 19 grams of protein each day according to the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDAs). So if they’re drinking a serving of milk at school (8g protein) then they’re almost meeting half of their day’s needs.  Here are some of my favorite choices that deliver about the same amount of protein per serving as peanut butter’s 7 grams for 2 tablespoons. 

  • Eggs (6g protein/egg). 
    • Given that you can get a dozen eggs at ALDI for around $1, you can send two hard boiled eggs or an egg salad for less than $.20! Learn how to make hard-cooked eggs in the oven
  • Beans/Lentils (7g protein in ½ cup of black beans). 
    • Tuck them in a burrito, make a pureéd dip, or put them in a salsa. You can make them from dried on the stove or in an Instant Pot for somewhere around $.10/serving. We especially love them on these Sheetpan Chicken Nachos.
  • Milk/Greek Yogurt (8g protein per cup, or 10g for 1/2 cup greek yogurt).
  • Tuna (26g for 3/oz serving). 
    • Tuna is a protein powerhouse.
  • Sunflower seeds (5.5g protein per ¼ cup). 
    • You can even easily grind your own and use in place of peanut butter. It’s seriously good! Or, add them to homemade granola, chicken salad or slaw. 

What do to if you’re stuck for nut-free school lunch ideas

This is the challenge — and where you can lean on me for clever and tasty lunchbox ideas. Day in and day out it gets more and more tempting to resort to PB&J. When you don’t have that option, well, then what?

If you’re stuck on sandwiches, why not explore them? Roast beef, turkey, tuna, or hummus are all healthy options that most kids like — I’m getting hungry just thinking about them! 

What about these non-sandwich nut-free school lunchbox ideas?

  • Sandwich Wraps
  • Pizza
  • Quesadilla
  • Green or Grain Salad
  • Pasta/grain salad
  • Sushi (grocery store)
  • Meat and Cheese Skewers
  • Pasta Salad or Spaghetti
  • Burger or Sliders
  • Hot Dogs
  • Homemade Lunchable

Here are 10 of my Best Nut-Free School Lunch Ideas: 

That’s two full weeks! You could even just keep rotating through and spend the extra brain power on helping your kid with their pre-algebra homework. I hope you’ve been eating your healthy protein too. You may need it! 😉

Nut-free Ham and String Cheese Wrap from Holley Grainger

Ham and String Cheese Wraps Lunchbox

 

Nut-free Breakfast Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Breakfast Lunchbox with Waffles and Syrup, Hard-Cooked Egg and more!

(Learn how to hard-cook eggs in the oven!)

 

Nut-free Ham and Cheese Rollups from Holley Grainger

Ham and Cheese Pinwheels Lunchbox

 

Nut-free Salami, Cheese and Cracker Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Crackers, Salami, & Cheese lunchbox

 

Nut-free Chicken and Couscous Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Chicken & Couscous Lunchbox

 

Nut-free Turkey and Cheese Skewers Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Turkey and Cheese Skewers Lunchbox

 

Nut-free BLT Skewer Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

BLT Skewers Lunchbox

(BLT Skewers Recipe)

 

Nut-free Sushi Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Sushi Lunchbox

 

Nut-free Cottage Cheese and Granola Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Cottage Cheese and Nut-free Granola Lunchbox

 

Nut-free Turkey and Cheese Pinwheels Lunchbox from Holley Grainger

Turkey and Cheese Pinwheels Lunchbox

 

For more easy and healthy nut-free school lunch ideas, check out 50+ Nut-Free Snack Ideas for School. These can work in the lunchbox or as a classroom snack!

 

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Nut-Free School Lunch Ideas from Holley Grainger