Friday, September 4, 2009

Back to school: Allergy-free lunchbox ideas

We had a great batch of back-to-school food and cooking ideas at this week, but when it comes to kids who have food allergies, parents really have to think outside the lunchbox.

My family's back-to-school daze is complicated by the fact that three of our five kids can't eat gluten, and one of those three can't have any dairy, either. So, for them, nothing involving wheat in any way, shape, or form. No pasta salads (rice pasta can be nasty if it's not piping hot). No traditional sandwiches (gluten-free bread makes great toast, but crumbles into pasty bits after spending a few hours wrapped in plastic and stuck in a cubby or locker). It also rules out most pre-packaged lunchbox food, though there are some good gluten-free offerings out there.

Our youngest two kids have no known allergies or food intolerances, but their preschool is a nut-free zone -- which, compared to avoiding gluten and dairy, is easy. But, with preschoolers, it's also easy to get stuck in a baloney-sandwich or macaroni-and-cheese rut. ("What do you want in your lunchbox, Sweetie?" I asked my preschooler the other day. And, without even looking up from the picture she was coloring, she answered, "Something not boring.")

Here are five "main courses" that work for us. And by "work for us," I mean that I can whip them together easily, often in advance, and they'll actually eat it.

Chicken salad. I buy a family-size pack of bone-in chicken breasts on sale, roast them all at the same time, use some for dinner, and then chop up the leftovers with a little mayo or salad dressing to hold it all together. Try stirring in golden raisins or dried cranberries, adding crunch with chopped apples or celery, and changing the flavor profile with a bit of korma-style curry paste or some minced fresh herbs.

Fresh spring rolls. I'll send my big kids off with supermarket sushi in a pinch, but these fresh spring rolls are much more economical. Soak rice-paper wrappers in hot water for less than a minute, spread them out on a clean cutting board, and fill them with whatever strikes your fancy -- I use a combination of bean-thread noodles, thawed frozen shrimp or leftover pork, shredded lettuce, sliced radishes, and carrot shavings (made with a vegetable peeler). Here's a more detailed (but still easy!) recipe.

Roll ups. Corn torillas don't hold up well in a lunch box -- they delaminate and go all crumbly -- so I wrapped sticks of string cheese with slices of ham, turkey, and/or salami and called it good. (My non-dairy eating boy got salami spread with soy cream cheese and rolled up into little logs).

Crackers stackers. A pile of crackers (gluten-free ones for us), a heap of cheese squares, and a bunch of little rounds of ham or chunks of salami. Your kids might give you bonus points for putting it into a divided plastic container and pretending you bought it at the grocery store. Variation: Cut everything into large sticks and sub pretzel rods for the crackers; for some reason, food is more delicious if you can wave it around like a baton before consuming it, apparently.

BBQ steak non-sandwiches. Leftover London broil from dinner, cut into small, thin slices, and tossed with bottled BBQ sauce. Super easy. (Another favorite: False fajitas. Strips of leftover London broil, jumbled together with strips of bell pepper, with a corn tortilla on the side. If only we ate steak more often!)

Add a drink, something crunchy, something snacky, fruit, and a treat, et voila -- lunch is ready to go. (Keep your wallet in mind, and remember that brown-bagging it isn't just for the kids. Here are five more ideas for lunches adults can bring to work.)

What are you putting in kids' lunch boxes?

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