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No PB&J? Navigating nut allergies in schools

In response to rising peanut allergies, schools are declaring classrooms "nut-free." But what if your child eats a plant-based diet and depends on nuts for protein and energy?

My son started kindergarten last week, and in the mind-numbing deluge of fliers, forms, and emails that marks the beginning of any school year it was announced: “Our class will be a NUT-FREE ZONE.” Of all the school-related challenges, this wasn’t one that I had anticipated.

I imagined that behind this decision were parents fearing for a severely allergic child’s safety. After all, according to research peanut allergies alone tripled between 1997 and 2008. Interestingly, a study ealier this year showed that kids who grow up in cities are more likely to become allergic to nuts.  And nut allergies can be life threatening.

So it makes a lot of sense to use precaution in the classroom. But it made me—the mother of a vegetarian kid who loves peanut butter, almond butter, cashews, and walnuts, and relies on them for protein and calories every day—a little nuts. My son doesn’t like dairy very much. What was I going to send? Coconut butter and jelly sandwiches? (Better option: Omit nut butter in these super tasty Ricotta and Banana Sandwiches.)

Looking at it from the other side, I wondered how the thousands of parents of children with allergies to peanuts, tree nuts, or other foods coped. (Have you faced serious dietary restrictions in or out of the classroom? Share your tips in the comments below.)

I emailed his teachers: Would it be OK to include some nuts in his lunch (eaten in the cafeteria) but strictly avoid including them in snacks (eaten in classroom)? Were absolutely all nuts and seeds off limits? In general, seeds are less allergenic than peanuts and tree nuts, including sunflower butter, tahini, and sesame and pumpkin seeds.

If the allergies in the classroom weren’t life threatening, I was hoping that we could find some middle ground. In the meantime, I started looking at lunches from a new perspective, one that included more no-nut, non-dairy protein options like hard-boiled eggs, hummus and other bean dips, baked tofu, coconut-milk yogurts, and protein drinks. I flagged the following recipes as good options.

Tofu, Mushroom, and Tomato Kabobs

Quinoa and Roasted Vegetable Salad

Sweet Glazed Tofu Cutlets

Chocolate-Banana Protein Smoothie

Strawberry Sunrise Shake

Luckily, after contacting the parents, our son’s teachers decided to lift the “no nut” rule, as long as we impressed the “no sharing” rule on our kids. “We had that rule at summer camp,” my son beamed. No big deal.

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