Creative, no-tree nut school lunches


It’s back-to-school time, though I know for Staunton locals it’s been a few weeks now that the kiddos have boarded the buses and filled the classrooms.

Apparently, that’s been just enough time for some parents to begin to bemoan the new no-tree nuts policy at local schools.

It’s not that those parents don’t want to support a policy that will help kids with deadly allergies be safe at school. It’s just that longtime staple of American school lunches — peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — are now a no go, leaving parents scrambling to find alternatives that their kids will actually eat.

The worst thing is that parents can’t just sub almond butter or cashew butter, but instead have to can the whole nut butter and jelly combo altogether.

What’s an overstressed and juggling parent to do?

Though I don’t have any wee ones myself, I’m no stranger to substitutions in the kitchen, or to creative cooking, and I’ve catered my fair share of tea parties and special occasions for children and teens so I do have some insight into the youngest — and often pickiest — eaters.

What follows are some ideas for lunch alternatives that have a good chance of getting an A+ from your little scholars.

Pasta Salads

Let’s face it, most kids love starch. With a good thermos you might be able to keep Macaroni and Cheese warm until lunchtime (and some kids don’t mind it cold), so put that one in heavy rotation for the school year.

But there’s also cold pasta salad — a basic recipe that can be reinvented week-to-week by a change of dressing, seasonal ingredients, different herbs or spices (think Asian-inspired, Indian curry adaptations, Italian flair, or all-American mayo-based varieties), or the addition of cold meats.

Younger kids may like a plainer pasta salad, with just butter or olive oil and garlic for example, while teens might have the palette for olives, cherry tomatoes, and some marinated artichoke hearts.

You know your kid. But you also know recipe inspiration can be hard to come by. I like this kid-friendly pasta salad recipe collection (22 ideas!) from the terribly-named POPSUGAR Moms (the recipes are healthy, I promise!).

Soup is good food!

I love a good thermos. There’s nothing better than opening that well-insulated bottle and having soup on the go. Not that I do it at school — I’m more the autumn-hike-in-the-mountains type, and when it’s time to picnic, I want a warm meal.

I figure kids are no different. Just because they’re brown-bagging it doesn’t mean all lunches have to be cold or room temp.

Plus, soup gives parents an opportunity to hyper load the lunch meal with great nutrition. Chicken soup isn’t called for in all situations for nothing! It’s reputation as a healer is well deserved.

So when you cook your next whole chicken, pick it clean and make bone broth from the carcass, and then use this as the base for many a soup concoction. Just remember to add the egg-noodles the days you’re serving as they don’t preserve well for a long time in the liquid.

Another fave is Brunswick Stew. Did you know that Virginia is one of the places that claim to have originated this tomato-based comfort food?

Equally beloved is Beef Stew, particularly for those active and growing young athletes!

One of the best things about making soup is that you can make a double, even triple batch and freeze some for later. I love to use the slow cooker for soups and stews because I can plug in and go to work, letting it do the cooking for me all day. This is a lifesaver for busy parents.

Here’s a list of 25 kid-friendly soup recipes from the more insightfully-named parenting blog, Life With The Crust Off.

The peasant’s meal

You don’t have to tell your kid that a basic charcuterie is often known as a peasant’s meal. Perhaps better to call it a farmer’s meal, or the king & queen’s meal. At any rate, this meal is so simple, yet so satisfying, that most kids literally…eat it up!

All it takes is a nice hunk of bread and butter, nice hunk of cheese, and either a hearty sausage cut into safe bite-sized bits, turkey or ham rolled into tubes, or thin meat slices stacked onto cucumbers or peppers. Add to this apple or orange slices or a few grapes and you can see that peasants really never had it so good!

Really, this one has nearly endless variations of cold cut cheese, meat, and bread. If you’ve got a “dipper” on your hands, you can even send a dressing on the side.

This is exactly the market Lunchables wishes to capture. But why buy all that industrially processed food in all that excessive packaging when you can make your own version in mere seconds (and half the cost) while adding nothing to the landfill? Good for kids, good for the environment, good for you. This one’s almost too easy!

The good old sandwich

With nut butter out of the picture, what remains for sandwiches?


Vegetarians and meat-eaters alike can enjoy the good old wrap, which is an especially good way to squeeze in extra nutrients where picky eaters won’t necessarily see them.

Kids do still like things that are “kid sized,” so cut wraps and sandwiches into smaller portions and watch that ham and cheese, turkey sub, or hummus and cukes sandy get scooped right up.

Here’s another website of ideas, this time with kid-friendly nut-free sandwiches. 

Going nuts

I hope these ideas will help you keep it fresh each day while you’re struggling to get past the school day nut-butter exile.

At least you don’t have to scratch your head over what to give after school for the afternoon snack: PB & J and/or trail mix for sure.

 Mary Beth Harris, Proprietress, AVA Restaurant and Wine Bar

Mary Beth Harris About Mary Beth Harris

Mary Beth Harris is the proprietress of AVA Restaurant and Wine Bar. She's been in the restaurant business for 12 years and is the former owner of The Darjeeling Cafe.