Living with Celiac: Back to School Lunch Tips and Ideas

B.S. Dietetics, Dietitian, Health Professional

It’s that time of year again In fact, today was the first day back to school for my three girls.

While getting back to a routine can be helpful for many, one of the things I always dread is figuring out what to pack for school lunches. One of my girls is unable to have wheat. Much like celiac patients, it can be hard to find some quick items that can be tucked into a lunch box.

Food safety concerns

I have a degree in nutrition and did graduate work in public health, so I’m probably more concerned than most with food safety. The main issue with packing a lunch for school involves keeping the hot food hot and the cold food cold. There are several wonderful products on the market to help you with this chore.

One of my favorite is a simple lunch box ice pack. Other neat items are lunch boxes that have the ice pack built into the sides of the lunch box. So you simply toss the lunch box in the freezer every night and in the morning add the food. The lunch box keeps it colds for well beyond the lunch period. When it gets cold outside and your child wants a hot lunch, there are some special reinforced bowls can keep things such as soup, GF mac and cheese and anything else warm until your child is ready to eat.

Packed lunches -- first things firstThe one tip that I would give any parent with multiple kids to get ready on a school morning is to** pack the lunch the night before!** If -- like yours truly -- you are not a morning person, this tip is even more important.

When we pack a lunch ahead of time we get everything into the lunch box and then place the entire thing into our fridge. Not only does it make the lunch easy to grab but it cools everything off really well, which helps keep your child’s lunch at the right temperature all day. (Don’t forget to toss an ice pack in for an extra food safety step).

Prep as much as you can at the beginning of the week

Another tip that has helped with packing healthy celiac-friendly lunches is to prep as much as you can ahead of time. Wash and chop your veggies at the beginning of the week. Store them in a container made for veggies to help them last longer. Some of my girl’s favorite veggies include: broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, snow peas, radishes, celery and sugar snap peas.

Veggies being prepped

_ Credit: Jennifer Rackley_

Fruit salads or sliced watermelon are great to make ahead as well. Then they can be placed in a small Tupperware-style container to add into the lunch box later. Here’s a tip -- for fruit salads it is essential to add one acidic fruit and its juice. For example, we love pineapple but oranges would work too. The citric acid in these acidic fruits will keep your other fruits from turning brown for the entire week.

_ Credit: Jennifer Rackley_

Get your kids involved

Fruits and veggies are non-negotiable for us. They go in every lunch. However, getting our kids involved in picking their favorite fruits and veggies makes it more likely that they will actually eat them. Kids with celiac may often feel as if their choices are minimal, but allowing them to pick a few options for their lunches can help them feel less limited.

Some of my girls’ favorite additions to their lunch box are: cheese cubes, yogurts, sandwiches, gluten free crackers, gluten free granola bars, and gluten free wraps. If you are making a wrap use a gluten free tortilla and add all of your child’s faves. We love turkey, shredded cheese, spinach, grated carrots and Italian dressing.

For sandwiches one great tip for making them the night ahead is to place anything like mayo or mustard between the meat and cheese, instead of directly on the bread. This keeps the sandwich from getting soggy overnight in the fridge.

Hopefully these tips will help you to come up with some additional items that your little one will love for lunch, will be celiac friendly and will supply the proper nutrients needed for growth and learning.

Have a great school year everyone!

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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition. She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years. Jennifer also serves the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).