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No one knows for sure why, but food allergies are on the rise affecting about 8% of children in the U.S., or 1 in 13 kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The immune system normally protects people from germs. But in people with food allergies, the immune system mistakenly responds to food as if it were harmful.

Most parents of children with food allergies pack their kids’ lunches. Making a healthy school lunch every day for your child can sometimes feel like a chore. Add to that a food allergy, and meal prep can be quite challenging. However, it is possible to make quick and healthy lunches that are also safe for kids with allergies. It just takes some preparation and a little help from the experts.

Try working whole ingredients like fresh fruits and vegetables into every lunch, but if you’re including packaged goods, you’ll have to read the labels. Although the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act requires manufacturers to clearly list on product labels the eight most common food allergens — milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat and soybeans — manufacturing processes can change over time.

Earlier this year the US Food and Drug Administration announced that sesame has become the latest major allergen that must be labeled in plain language on packaged foods in the U.S. Products manufactured prior to 2023 may still contain unlabeled sesame and will remain on store shelves until replaced by new inventory.

The three most common causes of food allergies in children are milk, eggs and peanuts, and all are protein foods. Let’s get creative with some new ideas for protein alternatives that your kids will love.

Here are some nutritious options that skip the milk, eggs and nuts.

Peanut Allergy Options

Peanut butter is a popular item in most children’s lunchboxes, so when your child sees their friends eating that trusty PB&J or trail mix, they’ll want to fit in.

soynut butter and jelly sandwich
  1. Almond and cashew butters are delicious alternatives, but some children with peanut allergies have tree nut allergies, too. Fortunately, seeds and beans are on the safe list. Spread sunflower or soy nut butter with jam on a whole grain waffle or bread. Serve with milk or yogurt for more protein-rich nutrition.
  2. No nut trail mix — yes, it’s a thing! Make it with pumpkin seeds, unsweetened dried fruit like cherries or raisins, and cereal like Chex Mix or nut-free granola. Sprinkle on cottage cheese for a protein boost.
  3. Coconut Bliss Balls are a spin on the traditional no-bake energy balls minus the nut butter. Blend ¼ cup of oats, ¼ cup of unsweetened shredded coconut, 6 Medjool dates, 2 tablespoons of hemp seeds, 2 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa and 2 tablespoons of coconut oil. Make in batches and keep frozen.

Milk Allergy Options

glass of soymilk
  1. Kids love finger foods, so give them a fun container like a kid-size bento box for homemade Lunchables minus the cheese. Little compartments fit cut fruits, veggies and meats. Add a crunchy snack like crackers, vegan chickpea puffs or kale chips. Remind them to wash their hands with soap and water before eating as hand sanitizers alone don’t remove food allergens.  
  2. All kids love pizza, but the toppings can be a challenge. Make homemade pizza bites using burger thins (a smaller version of a hamburger bun) or mini pita pockets topped with tomato sauce, soy cheese and basil. Pesto spread is another option, or go Middle Eastern with hummus. Make ahead of time and refrigerate so they’ll be ready to pack the next morning.
  3. Dairy-free plant-based milks have exploded onto the food scene, but choose wisely. Although most plant milks are fortified in calcium and vitamin D, pea and soymilks are higher in protein than nut milks, making them a better choice for growing children.

Egg Allergy Options

healthy tortilla with chicken, lettuce, salsa and cheese
  1. Looking for a spread to make your tuna or chicken salad? Mix mashed avocado or guacamole in cold meats for a healthier alternative to egg-free mayonnaise. Serve with lightly salted crackers, baby cucumbers and carrots to add crunch.
  2. Go Mediterranean and make Italian kebobs using extra-long toothpicks. Cut string cheese into bite size pieces and skewer with cherry tomatoes and black olives. Serve with a side salad and a small container of dressing. Finish with a sweet clementine.
  3. Customizable wraps are trending on TikTok with lots of egg-free fillings. Using a knife, cut a slit from the center point of a large whole wheat tortilla down to the bottom edge. Add healthy ingredients like chicken, lettuce, cheese and salsa and separate into each corner. Fold the tortilla one corner at a time and serve.  

Substituting these healthy sources of protein can keep everyone’s lunch tasty, fun and safe.

Diane Riccardi is a clinical dietitian in Moffitt’s Nutrition Therapy Department. She’s also one of the program leaders of Survivors Overcoming and Achieving Resiliency, or SOAR, which helps patients with breast cancer transition from active treatment and promotes a healthy lifestyle through yoga, meditation, stress management, nutrition and exercise.