Packing Lunch With Nutritional Punch

Make the grade with healthy options for your child

Another summer has come and gone, and kids are returning to the classroom and to school lunch. Providing a safe gluten-free lunch is always the first priority, but a healthy lunch can also go a long way to providing the good nutrition your child needs every day.

If this is your child’s first school year gluten free, you may be struggling to find healthy replacements for the gluten-containing foods that he or she used to eat. If you are a more experienced gluten-free parent, you may be struggling to come up with fresh new ideas, or you may be letting your older child or teen have more freedom to make their own choices at lunch.

Gluten-free diets are often lacking in some key nutrients. Gluten-free breads, cereals and pastas are typically not enriched with B vitamins, folic acid, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and iron the way similar gluten-containing foods are. The gluten-free diet is also at risk of being low in fiber as most people get the majority of their fiber from wheat-, rye- and barley-based foods. The diet may also be low in calcium, especially if your child is struggling with lactose intolerance.

Here are some tips to help you think outside the lunch “box” and start the school year off on a healthy note.


Build a lunch

Because weekday mornings can be so busy for many families, coming up with a basic plan for packed lunches can take pressure off parents to come up with ideas at the last minute. If your child is old enough, having a plan can also allow them to participate in assembling lunch.

Amy Macklin, R.D., founder of Gluten Free Roots, a website and gluten-free diet
consulting service, suggests developing a Balanced Lunch Checklist. The checklist builds on the basics of healthy gluten-free lunches: lean protein, fruits, vegetables, gluten-free whole grains and low-fat dairy. Ask your child to write down examples of their favorite foods in all these categories and develop a weekly lunch plan based on the checklist.



Simple sandwiches

Many kids are accustomed to having a sandwich at lunch, and the carbohydrates in sandwich bread are a great source of energy. However making a sandwich can be a real challenge if your child has not yet found acceptable gluten-free bread.

Macklin says that finding gluten-free bread that looks as close to regular bread as possible is important. “Because some gluten-free bread slices can be small, try to buy a loaf that is closer to full size, or consider baking your own bread,” she advises. To get extra nutrition, opt for gluten-free enriched breads whenever possible.

If your child isn’t crazy about sandwich bread, be creative with a gluten-free bagel, corn or other gluten-free tortilla or an English muffin. Macklin suggests shaking up sandwiches even more. “Try lettuce leaves or do lunchmeat and cheese roll-ups. You can make lunch with a crunch by adding a carrot, raw green been, red pepper or pickle in the center,” she says.

Protein power

Include a good source of protein in every lunch. Protein helps keep kids full longer, and meat sources of protein can provide needed iron and Vitamin B12. Gluten-free deli meats are easy and appealing, as are boiled eggs, chicken or tuna salads, beans, low-fat cheeses, nut butters such as peanut or almond butter, and fruit smoothies made with Greek yogurt.


Leftovers are also great for lunches, especially if your child has easy access to a microwave.

Sheila Kite says her 17-year-old daughter Olivia, who has had celiac disease since she was 9, took a thermos with steamed shrimp or pasta salad for lunch when she was in elementary school. “My goal was to make Olivia feel like she had a ‘special’ lunch that was even better than what other kids were eating,” Kite says.

Kids’ tastes also mature over time, which has been Sheila’s experience with Olivia. “Now she’ll take a leftover pork chop, roast, gluten-free lasagna or macaroni and cheese,” Kite says. “When she was a freshman, she didn’t feel comfortable using the microwave at school, but now she does.”

Vegetable adventures

Many kids struggle to find vegetables they like. For younger children, standby recipes such as Ants on a Log—celery and peanut butter, topped with raisins—can be made even more nutritious by varying the vegetable and the filler. For example try red pepper strips or a cucumber sliced lengthwise and top it with hummus instead of peanut butter.


Celery filled with chicken or tuna salad can also be a good way to serve more vegetables while also providing protein. Slice carrots, celery, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes and serve them with dips. “There is nothing wrong with using dip in moderation if that helps your child eat more vegetables,” says Macklin.

Older kids may be developing a taste for salads. Try to choose darker leafy green vegetables instead of iceberg lettuce. The darker greens provide more folic acid. If your child prefers iceberg lettuce, even sneaking in a few spinach or romaine leaves is a good place to start.

If salad is the main course for your child’s lunch, be sure to include protein such as chicken, nuts, beans or eggs. Some non-meat forms of protein, chickpeas and beans for example, are good sources of iron and fiber.


Fruity fun

Fruits are a great place to get creative, and most kids will accept a wide variety. Fruit kabobs are fun, easy and can be served with a good source of protein and calcium such as yogurt. Try wrapping a banana in a gluten-free tortilla with peanut butter.

A fruit quesadilla can also be kid-friendly with sliced fruits between two gluten-free tortillas topped with peanut butter or low-fat cream cheese. Add fruit to low fat cottage cheese, or top apple rings with peanut butter and gluten-free oats. If your child isn’t crazy about whole fruits, a fruit smoothie, dried fruit or an 8-ounce cup of 100 percent fruit juice provide variety and nutrition.

Delicious dairy

Dairy products provide needed calcium for growing bones. However some kids with celiac disease may struggle with lactose intolerance at least temporarily. The good news is that most aged cheeses, including cheddar and Swiss, are very low in lactose and may be tolerated very well. Lactose-free milk or fortified soy, almond or coconut milks can help provide necessary calcium and Vitamin D. Non-dairy sources of calcium include dark green leafy vegetables, almonds, tofu and calcium-fortified orange juice.


Occasional treats and snacks

Both Macklin and Kite agree that there is room for occasional treats in a healthy gluten-free lunch. “When my boys have field trips, I might let go of nutrition for the day and let them have fun foods like nachos or a sugary drink,” Macklin says.

She recommends including a small treat in your child’s lunch once or twice a week as part of the Balanced Lunch Checklist. An appropriate treat would be a bite-size candy bar, single-serve bag of chips or a small gluten-free cookie, she says.

It’s also important to keep a stash of snacks in the classroom. “If there is a surprise birthday treat or another special occasion snack, I make sure that Olivia has a snack in her backpack like cookies or fruit snacks so she’s not left out,” Kite says.


Macklin also recommends considering your child’s age when packing lunch. “My boys are getting older now and need more food than they did when they were little,” she says.

If your child has appropriate snacks for the time between school and sports or band practices, he or she won’t get hungry and be tempted to make bad choices from vending machines or fast food.

“Olivia played on a travel volleyball team, and we wanted to make sure she had plenty of safe choices available during a day of games,” says Kite. “We packed fruit, beef jerky, carrots, cheese sticks, and even peanut butter cups as a treat.”

Keeping it safe

Cafeteria tables can be messy places, so Macklin recommends including extra napkins or paper towels in your child’s lunch. “Have them eat off the napkins or paper towels, or even directly out of their lunch box to avoid contamination with crumbs from other kids’ lunches,” she says.


Keep hot foods hot with a thermos. If your child has access to a microwave, teach your child to cover the food with a paper towel during cooking. Kite recommends investing in plenty of cold packs for lunches and snacks. And Macklin notes, “A frozen container of yogurt can also help keep things cold.”

School’s out

Many schools serve lunches fairly early in the day, so kids are usually hungry when they get home. If your child is older and home alone for a bit after school, he or she can take some responsibility for a healthy afterschool snack. Just remember, it doesn’t have to be complicated to be healthy.

“Olivia’s favorite afterschool snacks are fruit or a slice of cold gluten-free pizza,” says Kite. Keep ready-made healthy snacks available, and keep chips and other junk foods out of sight. Pre-cut fruits and vegetables, yogurt, string cheese, trail mix or gluten-free crackers and peanut butter are all healthy grab-and-go options.

The start of the school year is always hectic, and sometimes packing a healthy lunch can be just one more thing on a busy parent’s morning to-do list. But with some pre-planning, input from your child whenever possible and attention to some key nutrients, it can be easy to kick off the healthiest school year yet.

Amy Jones, R.D., leads a celiac disease support group in Bellefontaine, Ohio. She is the chair of the Dietitians in Gluten Intolerance Diseases practice group and writes a recurring column on nutrition for Gluten-Free Living. She is also on the magazine’s Dietetic Advisory Board.

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