Making a packed school lunch used to be as easy as schmearing peanut butter and jelly on bread, but the rising incidence and severity of food allergies means it’s no longer so simple, and many schools are now completely nut-free. Even once you remove nuts from the equation, there are still other food sensitivities and allergies to contend with—but there are plenty of snacks that are safe for pretty much anyone, and that kids (and grown-ups) will actually want to eat.
What to Watch Out For
According to Healthline, the eight most common allergens are: dairy (cow’s milk), eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, shellfish, fish, wheat, and soy. There are other less common food allergens to be aware of too, including allergies to avocado, banana, sesame seeds, and kiwi (just to name a few), but we’re focusing on eliminating the top eight.
Here are a few allergy-safe school lunch and snack ideas that anyone would be happy to find in their lunchbox.
Hummus and Dips
Hummus is traditionally made with tahini, which is sesame paste, and some people are allergic to that. Thankfully, hummus is also flexible, and you can switch up the ingredients as needed. Simply replace the tahini with sunflower seed butter for an allergy-friendly version, but feel free to go farther and forgo chickpeas too. You can find hummus based on lentils, cauliflower, black beans, or cannellini beans instead, just to name a few alternatives. If the thicker texture of these dips is likely to be off-putting to your offspring, try an egg- and dairy-free ranch dressing instead. Or if your kids are fans of guacamole but won’t eat it once it browns, try this salt water avocado-soaking trick to keep it green even in a packed lunch.
Pair any of the above with a rainbow of crunchy raw vegetables for dipping. If you have pickier eaters, try making homemade vegetable chips (you can also buy them, of course, but always check the labels for hidden allergens). You don’t need a dehydrator, either; your oven will do just fine. Pretzels also work.
Sistema KLIP IT BPA-Free Microwave and Freezer-Safe Food Storage Containers, 3 for $10.93 on Amazon
Secure your snacks in these handy shatter-proof containers with multiple compartments and latch-on lids.
Seeds and Seed Butters
brain food, and when turned into a spread, they have a similar consistency and flavor to nut butters. Sun butter, made from sunflower seeds, is perhaps the most common (and easy to make at home), but you can find other versions too, or make them yourself. Use them anywhere you would use peanut butter or other nut butters—in sandwiches, as a dip for apples, or in baked goods, for instance. You can also send pumpkin seeds as a snack; coat them with nacho cheese powder and no kid can resist, yet they’re still way healthier than Doritos. See our Guide to Seed Butters for more info on the various types available.Like nuts, most seeds are great
It’s crunchy, it’s healthy (at least if you start with plain, unbuttered and unsalted kernels), relatively few people are allergic to it, and it’s wildly adaptable to any seasonings you want to add, whether sweet or savory. It’s a good alternative to greasy potato chips for sure. Even better, if you buy kernels in bulk and pop them in paper bags, they’re just as easy as the microwaveable stuff sold in stores, but way cheaper (and again, far better for you).
Envirogen Reusable Zip-Top Bags, 5 for $16.99 on Amazon
These extra-thick, freezer-safe storage bags are a great eco-friendly way to send any snacks back to school (or bring them to work).
Related Reading: The Most Interesting Healthy Snacks on the Market
Fresh and Dried Fruit
If your kids are old enough to safely handle skewers but still young enough to be especially enticed by food on sticks, spear some grapes and cubes of melon and pineapple instead of just dumping them into cups. Or pack whole berries, bananas, or sliced apples and pears with small containers of seed butter, vegan chocolate dip, or cinnamon yogurt dip (or a coconut-based dip if dairy is out); even if your kids don’t need to be cajoled into eating their fruit, it still helps make it more exciting.
Dried fruit is great too, from raisins to apple chips to chewy mango slices, but if you doubt they’ll eat it on its own, try mixing it into no-bake cookies, or stir it into homemade granola that’s nut- and grain-free. If you’re up for a bit of a project, you can make homemade fruit leather. And applesauce is always a safe (and easy) bet.
Non-Dairy Pudding or Mousse
Pudding is a fairly universally beloved snack, but the foil-lidded cups from the store are usually filled with preservatives, and often not allergy-safe either. Luckily, making a safer, healthier version at home is easy, and it’s definitely one of those double-duty dishes that’s great to pack for work and school lunches. Look around and you’ll find recipes based on different ingredients (avocados, silken tofu, and coconut cream are all popular dairy alternatives), and in lots of flavors beyond traditional chocolate and vanilla, so you’re sure to find one that fits your needs and that your kids will like. Encourage them to top it off with fruit or granola.
Gluten-Free (and Egg-Free) Baked Goods
It’s always nice to include a sweet treat in a packed lunch, but ideally, it’ll be healthier than, say, Oreos or Dunkaroos (RIP). And homemade means you can be sure it’s allergy-safe.
Happily, the internet abounds with paleo, vegan, and nut-free desserts of all kinds, as well as tips for substituting ingredients in standard recipes, like using flax eggs or replacing butter with coconut oil. Just be on the lookout for hidden allergens in other common baking ingredients—for example, many brands of baking powder contain gluten, and some chocolate (not just milk chocolate) contains dairy, so always check the label. And check out our Guide to Gluten-Free Food if you’re just starting out in that scene.
Related Reading: The Best Nut-Free Snacks to Buy for School Lunch
Allergy-Safe Recipes for Back-to-School
Here are some specific allergy-friendly recipes to kick-start back-to-school season.
Put an Asian-inspired spin on the usual hummus with edamame, and use white beans to better let their flavor shine. The sesame oil adds a nice nutty depth, but you can skip it if allergies necessitate. Get our White Bean and Edamame Hummus recipe.
This vegan ranch dressing relies on soaked cashews for creaminess, but if tree nuts are an issue, try a version based on vegan mayo and dairy-free milk instead. Either way, plenty of dill, onion powder, garlic, and parsley factor in. If you want more tang, add a little apple cider vinegar to taste. Get the Egg-Free, Dairy-Free Ranch Dressing recipe.
You can buy healthier plant-based snacks these days, but in most cases, it’s always best to make your own for the truly tastiest and least-bad-for-you option. These homemade crackers’ cheesy taste comes from nutritional yeast, and they get a color and texture boost from a little cornmeal. They’re egg-free, use vegan butter, and you can substitute a gluten-free flour for the wheat and oat flours if need be—plus, they’re truly easy to make! Get the Vegan Cheez Its recipe.
Increase the chances of your kids finishing all their fruit by adding a fairly healthy dip to sweeten the deal. This one’s made from coconut cream, powdered sugar, lemon juice and zest, and vanilla, but you can also find naturally sweetened versions if you prefer. Get the Dairy Free Fruit Dip recipe.
These no-bake cookie bites are packed with fresh shredded apples and cinnamon. You can substitute a few different things for the oats if you need these to be gluten-free, and can also use sunflower seed butter in place of the almond butter. Get the Apple Cinnamon Cookie Energy Bites recipe.
This silky chocolate pudding will give Super Snack Packs a run for their money. They’re free of dairy, soy, and refined sugar, and easy to whip up. Get the Dairy Free Paleo Chocolate Pudding recipe.
Crunchy clusters of allergy-friendly granola are great on their own, or sprinkled on top of yogurt. Instead of oats and nuts, it’s made from sunflower, pumpkin, and chia seeds, plus coconut, sun butter, and honey or maple syrup. Add in whatever dried fruits your family favors, and you’ll have a winning combination. Get the Nut-Free Paleo Granola recipe.
If you’re looking for a truly fudgy brownie that’s free of eggs, dairy, and wheat, give these a shot. You’ll need to get xantham gum unless you buy a gluten-free flour blend that already contains it. Coconut oil and flax eggs make these delightfully ooey-goey (but you can bake them longer if you like things a little firmer). Get the Gluten-Free, Vegan, Allergy-Friendly Brownies recipe.
Visit our Back-to-School Headquarters for everything else you need to know.
Related Video: What’s In Your Lunch Box?
Header image courtesy of Westend61 / Getty Images