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Posted on Sep 5, 2007 | 68 comments

Back-to-school lunchroom restrictions

Back-to-school lunchroom restrictions

Tuesday was our son’s first day of preschool, although it wound up being more of a sneak preview of the school as students are required to actually be three years old before they can attend on a regular basis. Bug will turn three in October, so although we were able to attend the first-day orientation and help him settle in today, it’ll be another month until he’ll go regularly. Like many schools now, his preschool has an allergy policy that restricts what foods parents can send along. As I understand it, we’re not to send along nuts, nut products, milk or yogurt.

This reminded me of why I got into making bentos in the first place. A few years back, my husband was misdiagnosed with celiac disease, and we ate gluten-free for nine months before he was given the all-clear. At the time, cross contamination via dropped crumbs, hands, utensils, etc. was a major concern, and I could only begin to imagine how hard it would be to keep a child with celiac disease away from traces of gluten in school.

So I’m motivated to make sure our lunches won’t pose a significant danger to the children with allergies in Bug’s class. I started looking at food policies at other schools, and thinking about how this will change how I pack Bug’s lunches. It appears that nut and milk bans are fairly common nowadays, but our varied diet is going to require some scrutiny. How will this affect Bug’s bentos? Mine and my husband’s can remain unchanged (click photo for details of the allergen-laden lunch packed in a Laptop Lunchbox). Pesto radiatore lunch (Laptop Lunch)

1) No Peanuts or Nut Products

This is probably the most common lunchroom restriction, serious because exposure is hard to avoid and symptoms can be severe. In addition to peanuts, other nuts include almonds, beechnuts, brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, hazel nuts, hickory nuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts. Nut products can hide in a number of places, including baked goods, crackers, health bars, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, etc. — there’s a more complete list of products that can contain peanuts here.

Impact: For us, this will mean Bug will do without the following at school: peanut butter sandwiches, nut-crusted fish, peanut-based curries, nut garnishes in salads and sauteed vegetables, “sesame” noodles using peanut butter, Nutella, bourek fillings that include nuts, salad dressings using peanut butter as an emulsifier, etc. This is livable, but I’ll try to keep it top of mind to minimize the chance of hidden nuts products. Possible substitutes include soy nuts or crunchy snack peas for texture in salads, mustard or tahini as a salad dressing emulsifier, etc. (sesame products are allowed).

2) No Milk or Yogurt

Less severe than a full-on lactose ban, we’re to avoid packing liquid milk or yogurt. For example, baked goods that include milk as an ingredient are okay. Cheese is also fine, so the little cheese triangles and Babybel cheeses will continue to make an appearance.

Impact: This rules out cereal with milk, Greek yogurt with fruit, yogurt sauces, spicy curries that I tame by adding yogurt, etc. Soy milk would be a possible substitute for regular milk, but as Bug will be eating breakfast before school I don’t think it’ll have much impact on us other than yogurt sauces for things like tamales. I wonder if sour cream and crema are also out of the question for Bug…

How have you adjusted to lunchroom food restrictions, and was there anything surprising to you? Let us know in comments if you’ve got any helpful advice!



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  1. @57 from islandveggie: Your son’s reaction sounds like the boy in our preschool — much more serious than lactose intolerance. It’s been a learning experience for us, but happily the milk/yogurt ban lets the kids play together safely. :-) If you can’t talk a preschool into something similar, waiting until he can reliably monitor his own intake sounds like a responsible plan.

  2. This sounds like a subject that has been well covered. I appreciate those who explained more about food allergies. I’ve spent several years watching over a food allergic child who, thankfully, outgrew the majority of his food allergies in time for kindergarten–just cashews and possibly pistachios left. We only had one pre-school year to worry. We still carry an epi-pen and his teacher and other school personnel have training from the district every year. Thankfully, he had to actually eat some of his allergens directly to react to them but we still kept them completely away from him. We hoped that his immune system would forget to respond and it worked. He now eats eggs, peanuts and dairy products with no ill effects when before it would cause his blood pressure to plummet and he would pass out.
    Mostly I wanted to comment on the birthday treat info others have shared. I have a tip to others. I would make acceptable treats for my son to have. The school kept them individually wrapped in the freezer or a special treat drawer so he had a cupcake, cookie or donut or candy when the others did. It really helped and the other parents felt comfortable bringing in special treats knowing that my son would get some, too.
    Kudos to you all for your good advice, encouragement and support.
    I wondered how Bug liked his year in pre-school. Hope it was fun and full of learning!
    (Love your site–I’m just starting to learn all about this as my family and kids’ school seek to make less garbage).

  3. @59 from Di: I like the approach of providing the school with allergy-safe special treats so your child doesn’t feel left out. I can only imagine the anxiety a parent would feel having to carry an epi-pen — my hat is off to you!

  4. @61 from Mary Walsh: Thanks for your note. I’m not an expert on peanut allergies, but fortunately the recent U.S. food labeling laws mandate clear indications of peanut contamination on processed foods. Good luck!

  5. My daughter’s kindergarten requests peanut-free snacks for those things sent for the class to share (it’s all-day, and they have a daily snack which they handle by having each parent send enough for the whole class a couple times a semester), but they’re fine with anything packed in individual lunches. I’m actually a little worried about this, because I KNOW there’s sharing going on — among other things, I’ve had to speak sternly to my daughter about NOT giving away her food picks! — and I try to pack peanut-free anyway. And hope that any child who actually has the allergy knows better than to take things even if offered.

    BTW, I noticed that on the Tips page, the link that should lead to this article actually leads to the notice about the Ichiban Kan online store opening.

  6. @63 from Sara: Wow, that’s scary if there are peanut products potentially being shared in a lunchroom with an allergic kid. Hope they’ve got an Epi-Pen (and a lawyer) ready! Also, thanks for the heads up on the bad link — I hadn’t realized.

  7. Was going to weigh in and add that milk can DEFINITELY cause anaphylactic reactions, but I saw many people had chimed in about that already :)

    I know firsthand the terrors of hidden allergens in food. Along with the fish and shellfish, of all the stupid things, I’m horribly allergic to honey. It seems as if honey is hidden in everything, from granola bars to breads to cereals to mustard. I even stumbled upon it in chicken stock (caught it just in time). So I’m another one of those people who holds up aisle traffic frantically trying to read the ingredient list.

    You know what I wish? I wish that these companies were made to list exactly what the “natural flavors” were in their products. I don’t care about their paranoia re: giving away the “secret formula”…what if one of those “natural flavors” or “seasonings” is one you’re allergic to? A heads-up would be very nice…epi-pens hurt.

  8. Even older kids it can be a problem with pb contamination. My son who is allergice to peanuts and is in 2nd grade. His friend this summer at the pool was sitting next to him eating a pb & J sandwhich and reached over and grabbed a grape from my son’s lunch. Well that was all it took..just a little peanut residue from the kid’s hand on his food and my son was covered in hives. It is such a scary situation. Thankfully he did not go into the full blown respiratory shut down. But it can happen like that. It can set some kids off by smell only, thankfully our son is not. Basically for an allergic child even if someone doesn’t wash their hands after lunch if they ate a pb sandwhich it can cause a lot of problems for allergic kids. I know it can be hard to understand unless your child has allergies. Luckily our school does not serve pb at school only Sunbutter and has a peanut ban.
    I think it is great you are being so proactive and understanding!

  9. I totally agree with Sarah, and if my kid had such rules imposed on him, I fight tooth and nail about not being able to pack him certain things for his lunch just because of perhaps three children in the whole school being allergic. My heart goes out to the folks that truly have to deal with such allergies and for being victims of an over-sterilized culture, but making the whole school accommodate them seems excessive. What if a few kids allergic to something in the grass, like I was when I was younger? Should the school pave over all the lawns and the kickball field? My kid can’t play in the grass so nobody else’s should either! That’s like giving a whole class detention because of something the class clown did.

    A separate lunch table and cubby to store their food should be more than enough. At the most extreme children should wash their hands before and after they eat. This may sound harsh, but I have no sympathy for any allergic child that steals from another kid’s lunchbox and ends up eating something he’s allergic to. He should have been taught better, or the classroom should have provided a more secure way to prevent theft or kept an eye on him. If my child were the one with the allergies, I’d want his classmates to be aware of it, but being even in the same room as somebody eating something with “traces of peanuts” makes his throat close up, I wouldn’t expect any special accommodations. And if that were the case, again, a separate area for allergic kids should be set up.

    It’s mean and crude and extreme and I know I sound like a jerk, but it’s how I feel about the subject. And if I’ve offended you, well good. Hopefully it means you’re now thinking about the issue from somebody else’s perspective. And for the record, I am not one of “those few who take it as a personal affront” as Alesia puts it. I’m one of those loudmouths who says what everybody else is thinking but it too polite to ever say out loud or even admit it.

  10. @68 from Trini: I’m not offended, Trini — I’ve got pretty thick skin and appreciate differing viewpoints here (stimulates thought). For me the packing restrictions aren’t such a big deal when we’re talking about preschoolers who are still learning proper hygiene and what they can/can’t eat. We’ll see what happens once the kids get into grade school and beyond, though…

  11. As a former Montessori teacher, I just wanted to toss out there that the milk and yogurt restriction may also be a logistical issue. Many 3 year olds can’t open foil-topped yogurt containers or milk cartons themselves yet, so sometimes when they try to the Yoplait (or what have you) goes everywhere!

  12. I’m 22, and don’t remember any restrictions of this type in school, nor do most of the people my age who I have talked about this with. However, I know people of parents’ generation that had such restrictions. Were they around, then fell out of favor and are now coming back? Just curious about that.

    Also, I have one friend whose daughter is severely allergic to peanuts. Like, can’t breathe is someone is eating a PB&J in the same room. So my friend homeschooled her until she was old enough to understand her allergy and ways to keep herself safe (late elementary school, iirc). She doesn’t go in the cafeteria (she is allowed to eat outside with a friend or in a teacher/counselor’s office), and only eats what her parents pack her. It seems to work well for them.

    By the way, how cool are the peanut allergy dogs? :) I read a story a while back about a girl who was severely allergic to peanuts, and now has a dog trained to detect peanuts in the area and alert her. He goes with her everywhere as a service dog. That would be a lot of peace of mind for me.

  13. I know this is an older thread, just found this amazing site. We just recently found out that my son is Allergic to milk, eggs, wheat and peanuts. Not looking forward to him going to school and having to deal with all this. My friend’s son is allergic to wheat and can’t use playdough or any other crafts that may contain wheat, so she is told she has to get products to make it herself and make sure she of course brings “safe” snacks for him and other stuff, yet is still required to pay the material fee for items he’ll never use. Besides that she would be required to come in on days of making the special crafts to help with her son.

    So for the parents of kids WITHOUT allergies, please have some sympathy, because it is very hard on the kids and parents. I am thinking It may be easier to homeschool until they either grow out of their allergies or find a school or teacher. Needless to say, my friend pulled her child out of the preschool. It was going to be too expensive and she would need to take more time from her work to go in and help out. That’s not the point of sending your kid to preschool.

    There are many crafts out their you can make without the “unsafe” ingredients for cheap too, in case your preschooler decides he wants to eat them. I hope one day this will be the norm, since Food allergies are on the rise.

    Just think how sad it is for the kid with the nut allergy to sit in the corner table by herself during lunchtime. Probably ridiculed because no matter how well informed kids are, they still like to tease others. And sometimes even the smell of peanuts can make a child go into anyphalactic shock. So a table in the corner won’t help. So how can you not be accomodating to those “few kids.” And to send a small kid off into another room by themselves, it’s like banishment. I guess you would only understand if your child went through it. It breaks my heart how insensitive people can be.

  14. I just found your site, because of my children’s interest in all things Japanese.

    As someone with very severe food allergies and who has children with them also, I grasp how restricting it is to not be able to pack a pb&j for your child. My mom’s school recently went peanut free and some of the teachers were complaining- this was in the summer. The teacher complaining was eating a candy bar with peanuts in it while filing some papers. My mom simply pointed out that if I came in contact with those papers- I would end up with a first class ambulance ride to the hospital. It isn’t just young children and sharing- think of common areas and things you touch while eating- the table, a chair, a serving dish. If there is a person with severe allergies coming behind you- someone would have to disinfect anything you had touched before that person came in contact with it.

    I don’t require others to keep up with my allergies or my children’s, and all my kids have always looked after themselves and each other since they were very young. I do ask that if we are in your house, that no peanut products or shellfish products are opened. Since this is a life or death situation, I’ve never had anyone complain.

    I know that allergies are on the rise, but my kids were just doomed by the genetic lottery- and I am from the generation when food allergies were unknown and weird.

  15. For the record, yes, many people can go into anaphylactic shock just from peanut traces in the air, and it’s disgusting that some of you would potentially kill a child just because you can’t not pack peanut products in your child’s lunch. Those of us with food allergies (I have a peanut allergy myself) are not second-class citizens and should be allowed to socialize like everyone else. I pray to God none of you ever have children with food allergies, you’ll probably inadvertantly kill them.

  16. My 5 year old has a life threatening dairy allergy. I was disgusted by so many of the comments left here, especially Wendy’s “It’s not like one stray drop of milk is going to require the epi pen.” I am thankful for Wendy’s children that they do not have a dairy allergy. For my son, it doesn’t even take the drop of milk to cause a reaction. If you touch something dairy and then touch the table, and he comes along later and touches the table, he is going to react. Normally it would just be hives, but should he ingest something that he has touched after touching that table- yes, an epi-pen is necessary. He’s 5. He should be able to be a kid. He is very good with his allergy, and he knows what will make him sick, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask that others look out for him a bit too. As others mentioned, it’s a respect thing. And it may be a little inconvenient to have to think through one meal a day as you send a lunch to school, but think about all of the parents who are dealing with these food allergies. We have had to completely change our cooking, shopping, snacks, eating out- every single element of our food consumption. And it’s all worth it. This is a child’s life we are talking about.

  17. What about soy yogurt as a possible substitute? There are yogurts made of things other than milk. I have even seen coconut milk ones (though those are really gross).

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