There are few times of the year that are more stressful for a parent than back-to-school. Even for those of us who celebrate the start of the school year, the sheer number of tasks on our to-do lists can overwhelm. Of course, going back to school can be even more stressful for those of us whose children follow a Paleo diet. Whether our dietary choices are related to a true food allergy, a behavior or lifestyle choice or just a desire to make our kiddos healthier for their entire lives, communicating our needs to our children, their friends and their teachers can be tough. But it doesn’t need to be! Here are a few simple steps that I’ve learned over the years to make the back-to-school process an easier transition for Paleo families!
1. Talk to the Teacher
I know from firsthand experience that transitioning children to a Paleo template isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, especially with younger children or a child who is already a picky eater (see: Getting Your Kids On Board- Toddlers & Preschoolers, Transitioning My Kids to Paleo, and TPV Podcast, Episode 192, Feeding Picky Kids). And, while life as a Paleo family definitely gets easier with practice, any time our children are being cared for by other adults outside our homes can be an ongoing challenge.
When it comes to going back to school, the first step is talking to the other adults that will be responsible for our children during the day and making sure they understand our child’s specific dietary needs. This can include teachers, other parents, coaches, babysitters, and after school club leaders. Whether or not you use the word “Paleo” in your explanation is up to you. My preference is to simply present discuss the overt sensitivities my girls have, gluten and food dyes for my oldest, gluten and dairy for my youngest. Because I pack lunches and snacks, and because I’m totally fine with my kids having the occasional non-Paleo gluten-free, dairy-free treat, this is a great compromise for our family. However, if a more detailed conversation makes more sense for you, honor that (although I recommend refraining from being overly dogmatic). Talking to a teacher at the start of a school year can establish trust, respect and an open line of communication, an invaluable relationship to foster with the adult from whom your child will spend a year learning.
Having a discussion at the start of the year also gives us parents the opportunity to plan ahead and ensure that maintaining our child’s dietary needs isn’t a burden (on us, or the teachers!). You may discover that your child can keep Paleo-friendly snacks in the classroom for birthday parties or special occasions, or learn that the teacher uses candy as a reward and is willing to keep a special stash of dark chocolate or natural gummies for your child. You might also find out that other kids in the classroom are dealing with food allergies or learn about other parents following a Paleo or gluten-free template! Generally, I’ve found that as long as I’m willing to provide viable alternatives, teachers and other caregivers are always happy to accommodate.
It’s also worth discovering whether your child will benefit from a doctor’s note regarding his or her allergies or food sensitivities. Since food sensitivities are typically diagnosed based on a parent’s observations (symptoms upon reintroduction after a period of elimination), a doctor’s note can cover all food sensitivities, not just an anaphylactic response or Celiac disease. Doctor’s notes clearly outline which foods a child can and cannot eat, and a doctor’s professional “seal of approval” can help emphasize the seriousness of your requests.
2. Get a Good Lunch Box
Unless you’re incredibly lucky, your school probably won’t be able to accommodate Paleo diet priorities or extensive food allergies. For most of us, that means we’re going to be packing our children’s lunch boxes. But don’t worry, this does NOT have to be an elaborate or time-consuming affair.
I’ve been packing both my daughters’ lunches every day for years now, and I’ve picked up a few tips. First, choosing the right lunch box is vital. A great inexpensive option that I love and used for years is the Bento-style BPA-free plastic containers from EasyLunchBoxes. Now, I regularly use the LunchBots Cinco bento-style lunchbox for my oldest daughter and a PlanetBox lunchbox for my youngest. Besides price, the biggest difference between these three options is the sizes of the various compartments. For all of these options, I pack them in an insulated lunch box with a reusable freezer pack to keep things like hot dogs, salmon and lunch meat cold. And, as a tip for any of these options, if I ever pack something crunchy like SeaSnax or sweet potato chips, I always pack those inside a ziplock bag before putting into the bento compartment to make sure they stay crispy!
I find that it’s easiest to simply ask our children what they want to eat. If we sit down with our kids and make a list of the foods they enjoy, we can make sure their lunches are full of things they’ll actually eat (see Preparing for Kindergarten)! Plus, if your kids are like mine and happy to eat pretty much the same meals every day, you won’t have to waste much creative juice on packing! Now that my kids are back to school, more pictures of their lunches can be found on my Instagram.
Generally, we can think of making sure our kids’ lunches are full of plenty of protein, good fat and carbohydrates from whole food sources to fuel them throughout the day. It’s also helpful to consider what limitations are truly necessary for our kids. For instance, since both my children and husband eat some white rice, my daughters will sometimes get rice crackers in their lunches or SeaSnax Stix which are made with rice flour. However, if your children cannot handle any grains, my grain and nut-free plantain crackers would be an excellent substitute. Or, if you really need the convenience of store-bought, plantain chips work really well!
Some of my daughters’ other favorites include uncured grass-fed beef hot dogs (I either buy Applegate Farms or US Wellness Meats), SeaSnax (I cut the whole sheets into strips), and sweet potato chips. My kids will happily eat hotdogs and other clean lunch meat cold (yes, straight out of the package), but I will sometimes also pack canned salmon, smoked salmon, cold leftover scrambled eggs, green eggs, hard boiled eggs, leftover roast chicken, and other high quality deli meats (US Wellness Meats has a great selection). By the way, have you seen Primal Kitchen Mayonnaise? you can now make tuna salad! For more information on what I like to put in my daughters’ lunches see: Lunchbox Ideas for Back-to-School.
3. Have Treats to Keep in the Classroom
This idea will likely be an extension of the conversation we have with our kids’ teachers, because it’s pretty reliant on the rhythms and rules of individual classrooms. But in many places, it’s common for teachers to use treats as rewards or to provide special snacks on special days. These situations can be tough; we don’t want our children to feel left out, but we also don’t want to expose them to foods that aren’t good for them or hop them up on tons of sugar. Part of our discussion with our kids’ teachers at the beginning of the school year might involve leaving treats in the classroom that they can eat on special occasions where their classmates might get ice cream or cake.
When I know ahead of time that there is going to be a special occasion in the classroom, I’ll pack an extra treat in my child’s lunchbox to make sure they have something to eat too. My recipes for Paleo Monkey Bars (contain nuts) or Raisin Seed Cookies or Spinach Brownies would be perfect for a special lunch treat! I also like to put a square of dark chocolate in their lunches for a surprise once in awhile! Sometimes they also get a gluten-free, dairy-free treat that isn’t Paleo. You just can’t beat the convenience of Enjoy Life cookie packages, which are kept in both of my kids’ classrooms for allergy-free treats when there’s a special occasion at school that I didn’t know about ahead of time. It’s important to note that the treats left in the classroom need to be non-perishable so that they can last for the entire school year if necessary. We also have to make sure to always check with the school or our children’s teachers to find out if there are any allergy restrictions in the classroom (many prepackaged Paleo treats contain nuts, which don’t generally work for peanut-free or tree nut-free classrooms). Both of my daughters have had classrooms that were nut-free due to a student that had a severe nut allergy, and I’ve had to adjust not just treats but also snack foods to accommodate. I don’t mind at all though, as the mom of kids with overt food sensitivities, I appreciate any effort other parents make for the sake of my kids too. So, it’s just worth keeping in mind that it’s important to make sure that any food we bring into the classroom follows not only the dietary restrictions of our own children, but also any general food rules of the classroom.
It can be hard for kids to feel like they are being left out of a treat that their peers are eating right in front of them. Finding the balance between making sure kids are eating healthy, allergen-free foods and that avoiding feeling of social isolation can feel like walking a tightrope. I use a similar strategy to the one I use at birthday parties (see: Surviving a Non-Paleo Kid’s Birthday Parties)! While these situations can be difficult, they teach my children about the way we eat, how to navigate these social situations, and that it is okay to be different. And, when something unexpected comes up that I wasn’t prepared for, I commiserate with my children, and they know that they can abstain at school and get something special when they arrive home.
4. Stock up on Portable Foods Your Kids Love
Even with a list of approved foods to make packing lunches easier, there are times where every parent is just too busy. Stocking up on portable, Paleo-friendly foods that your kids love can be a big help! Whether it’s being able to have something store-bought to quickly carry out of the house as a snack, or just foods that we can prepare quickly, having portable foods handy can be a lifesaver!
When I am in the middle of the stress of writing a book (yes, I’m working on my fourth book now!), having the time to prepare healthy lunches can be challenging. Some of my kids’ favorite portable snacks are Larabars, Clif Kit bars and Steve’s PaleoKrunch bars. While these are not nut-free, they do make an excellent snack when I’m in a rush. Besides these pre-packaged snacks, my kids also enjoy some of my homemade treats. As long as nuts are allowed in the classroom, I love to make my Chocolate Date Squares, but I also have tons of other nut-free Paleo recipes that my kids love like my Spinach Brownies (see: Spinach Brownies Revisited (Now It’s Nut-Free!))
Typically I have a few choices for a protein to put in my daughters’ lunches in my fridge at all times. Some of my daughters’ favorites include uncured grass-fed beef hot dogs (I either buy Applegate Farms or US Wellness Meats). I also get deli meats made with all-natural ingredients, without processing, and using grass-fed meat. US Wellness Meats has an amazing selection, including bologna (both of my girls’ favorite), salami, summer sausage, ham, and a bunch of organ meat sausages (my youngest really loves the head cheese!). GrassFed Traditions has some fantastic summer sausage (bison is our favorite, but lamb is also crazy good) that I buy regularly. If you include dairy in your diet (I sometimes buy cheese as a treat for my oldest, but my youngest is so sensitive, we stay dairy-free in our home most of the time), both US Wellness Meats and GrassFed Traditions carry cheeses made with grass-fed dairy too. I also always have hard-boiled eggs in my fridge. To make them, I place a dozen eggs in a steamer insert. I bring about an inch of water to a boil in a pot, put the steamer insert in the pot, then set the timer for 15 minutes. It makes perfect hard-boiled eggs that are always easy to peel!
I always include fresh veggies in my kids lunches. My kids’ favorites are carrots, celery and cucumber; they’re easy to pack and nutritionally great choices! Other “acceptable” veggies (meaning my kids like them and I feel good about packing them!) include cold steamed broccoli and green beans, and raw baby spinach or romaine lettuce. In fact, I’d say a good third of their lunches are the veggies, and yes, my kids eat them. I also always pack fresh fruits (and sometimes dried as well). Favorites are apples, grapes, melon chunks, berries, clementine oranges, and mango. I don’t typically worry about adding fats to their lunches (especially since they usually have a fattier protein in their lunches), but I do sometimes pack olives, nuts, seeds, or snack bars as well. For more tips on what typically makes up the lunches I pack and some pictures see: Lunchbox Ideas for Back-to-School. As long as I keep giving my kids healthy, portable food that they love, I can rest easy knowing that they are getting the nutrition they need at school every day.