Kids have all kinds of allergies these days—it isn’t just about peanuts or tree nuts anymore. They can be allergic to everything from certain fruits, eggs, or even entire food groups like dairy. This can make feeding your kids pretty difficult when you still want to ensure that they are getting the right vitamins and nutrients in their diet and not accidentally consuming milk-based products.
But this can also make packing school lunches difficult for parents whose kids don’t suffer from food allergies, since some schools outright ban different foods in order to accommodate students with severe allergies. In some cases, a child can go into anaphylactic shock from cross-contamination or simply touching a food they are allergic to.
It’s easy to avoid peanuts, with so many foods and school snacks labeled as peanut-free and made in entirely peanut-free facilities. But what do you do when it comes to dairy? Dairy products are found in so many of the foods we eat, and are typical fare for school lunches, whether it’s a heaping portion of mac and cheese, a sandwich, granola bar, or slice of leftover pizza.
Here are 10 dairy-free school lunch and snack alternatives to consider.
10 Fruits & Vegetables
The most obvious alternative are vegetables and fruits, which make healthy and delicious snacks and do not contain any dairy products. Instead of cheese and crackers for a snack, pack some mini carrots and sliced cucumbers.
For a sweet dessert, instead of a mini brownie or cookies that contain dairy, consider some strawberries, blueberries, grapes, apple slices, peaches, or any other fruit. Mix it up so your child gets a different flavor profile every day. Or make your own fruit salad at home every Sunday, then scoop a generous helping into their lunch box for the morning.
If your child loves to dip their vegetables into a side dressing like ranch, consider a dairy-free alternatives like hummus instead. You can buy the store-bought kind or use an immersion blender and make your own hummus with a can of chick peas, tahini, and other flavours to make it even healthier.
Kids might need some time to get used to the taste. But once they do, hummus is great for dipping crackers and bread in as well.
8 Zucchini Pasta
A healthier alternative to wheat-based pasta all around, zucchini pasta with tomato sauce avoids any dairy in the meal whatsoever. Just cut the zucchini in slices using a vegetable peeler until you get to the seeds and continue on each side until you have a full plate of “pasta.” Then cook it in a skillet with a bit of oil, salt, and pepper until softened, and add your sauce.
Zucchini pasta with a sprinkle of salt and pepper or plain with some dairy-free butter can work for pickier kids who don’t like sauces. And they will love the cool green color.
7 Homemade Fish Sticks
It’s really easy to make fish sticks at home. Buy the type of fish your kids love and cut into small strips. Coat each one by one, with flour, salt and an egg mix, then dip into bread crumbs (dairy-free, of course). Fry them up, and voila! A fully dairy-free lunch that kids will love.
For a basic dip, use ketchup, which almost every kid loves, or just serve it with some vegetables or baked French fries on the side for their own version of fish and chips.
6 Dairy-Free Mac & Cheese
Rather than buy boxed mac and cheese products, boil your own pasta and mix a dairy-free cheese sauce into it for your kids' lunches. Try a few first and once you find the right one, the kids might not even notice the difference.
Try adding some additional items inside to enhance the flavor, like green peas, bacon, or sausage. You might have to prepare your child ahead of time for the different flavors they're going to experience, particularly if the child isn’t the one with the allergy but has to accommodate a fellow student. But if your child understands the reason, they might appreciate giving it a try.
5 Hardboiled Eggs
If you do not have to deal with an egg allergy as well, consider boiling up some hard-boiled eggs at the beginning of the week to pop into your kids’ lunches for a healthy and delicious mid-day snack, or add two for a heartier lunch with sides.
Eggs are not, as some wrongfully believe, a dairy product, so they are typically safe for those with dairy allergies to eat. And they contain lots of essential protein that kids need for their growing bodies.
4 Pigs in a Blanket
Boil or grill a hot dog, use a dairy-free pastry or bread, and roll the dog up into it. Commonly known as pigs in a blanket, these are a fun snack or lunch item that kids will love.
You can also get more creative and make “mummy dogs” with homemade pastry dough (or store-bought that’s dairy free) that you cut into strips and wrap around the dog like a mummy, then bake in the oven. Kids will love the concept and won’t miss having their hot dogs in traditional dairy-containing buns.
3 Tortilla Pinwheels
This is not only a dairy-free lunch, but a fun one to make and eat as well. Most tortillas do not contain dairy, as they are made using flour, lard or shortening, water, and salt. Spread a dairy-free product inside, like soy butter, dairy-free butter, fruit jam or preserves, deli meats, or a combination of items with other toppings. Or mix up some tuna with dairy-free mayo, or egg salad. Whatever you put inside, just roll it up and cut into pinwheels.
Lay them out in the lunch container and surprise kids with this fun sandwich alternative that they can eat in bite-sized pieces.
2 Cold Cut Sandwiches
The kids can have their sandwiches without cheese, combining just deli meats with dairy-free butter or margarine and other toppings of their choosing, like tomatoes, lettuce, or just plain meat and butter. If they really love their cheese, try out some dairy-free options until you find the one that they like. Or if you're afraid they'll miss it, just use a cookie cutter and make the sandwich into fun shapes so they'll be more excited about that than upset that there's no cheese.
Don’t forget to consider the type of bread; some wheat, white, or rye breads contain milk. French bread does not, nor does gluten-free bread (check the labels just in case). Standard tortillas also do not contain dairy.
1 Chicken and Noodles
Make this for dinner and use the leftovers for school lunch the next day. Just make sure to use rice-based noodles that don’t contain any dairy, like vermicelli.
Season and cook the chicken, add vegetables and spices to the noodles once cooked, then mix it all together. You can kill two birds with one stone by making a big batch so you can use it for two night’s worth of dinners and a school lunch, or the parents can take leftovers to work for lunch too.