10 Tips for Fun & Easy School Lunches that Fit Your Autism and ADHD Diet
School lunches can be overwhelming and difficult if you are new to the dietary changes that help ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). It’s not just about rethinking the standard lunch with GFCF, additive-free, allergen-free food. It’s also about providing a lunch your child will enjoy!
You will most likely not have anything available for your child from the school lunch menu. It’s good to make connections with the cafeteria staff and find out what items can be purchased, if any at all. With the poor quality of foods in our schools, this is not necessarily a bad thing!
Packing a lunch for your child to bring to school is probably your only option. If you provide a whole foods lunch with a variety of options, it will be packed with nutrition unlike the nutrient-void processed and packaged foods.
Here are my top 10 tips to help you think outside the brown bag:
1. To begin, brainstorm about all the foods you know your child loves to eat. What fits your new diet, what can be substituted and what needs to be replaced entirely? Create a list of favorites to fall back on when feeling stuck for good ideas. Depending on your children’s ages, have them help you with ideas. The more input your older child has, the more willing they are to eat what you give them. You want to make sure they actually eat the food once they get to school!
2. Create a school lunch menu plan for the week. This is as helpful as planning your dinner menu. Once you have a few meal and snack ideas that work for your child, you can easily rotate them throughout the week. This will help with shopping lists, budgeting, time and prep work. Keep the menu handy in the kitchen just in case someone else has to step in and do the lunch packing for you.
3. Plan wisely. Make the food as ready to eat as possible and easy to handle, especially for younger children. Their lunch time is limited and we all know how they would rather be playing, so keep it simple! Pre-peel and cut fruit and don’t require special tools to eat. Use easy open containers. Make sure the little ones can close it again to prevent spills on the way home. Buying in bulk and using reusable containers not only saves you lots of money, but it helps the environment, too.
4. Prepare the night before. Put together all parts of the lunch that can be done ahead of time to eliminate morning stress before school. Save the cutting of fruits and vegetables that wilt or oxidize until the morning and dip into fresh lemon juice mixed with water to prevent browning.
5. Keep it cool. Freeze fruit purees or juice overnight and add to the lunchbag in the morning. They will thaw and be ready to eat midday while keeping the other food cool and fresh. Frozen fruit puree becomes a fruit pudding and frozen juice turns into a slush or juice again depending on how long it has to thaw.
6. Get creative and think fun! It is amazing what special shape cutouts, skewers and/or party toothpicks will do for appeal. Instead of just putting cut fruit into a bowl, make a fruit kabob. Depending on age, include stickers, a personal note from Mom or Dad, or (if using a brown paper bag) have them decorate the bag as a puppet before filling it. Once the food is gone, they can play! For older kids, occasionally start a treasure hunt where you send them looking for the next clues somewhere in their school supplies or at home for a reward, special treat (not food related) or privilege.
7. Talk to your child’s teacher. Be sure the teacher, principal and any other staff who may care for your child are all aware of your child’s dietary requirements. Let them know that your child has food allergies or sensitivities. Communication is key to dietary success at school and written instructions are always the best resource to prevent misunderstandings.
8. Focus on what your child DOES get to eat, not what he doesn’t. Have your child bring home the leftovers in their lunch containers so that you can tell what is being eaten. You’ll get to know how much you need to be sending each day and whether the usual favorites are still well-liked. Offer variety and choices so your child doesn’t feel like the new diet is limited and boring.
9. Substitute creatively. Use rice cakes or GFCF waffles instead of bread, or better yet, use sliced, cored apple rings as a substitute for a bagel with a nut butter spread. Warm dinner leftovers in a thermos can be given on a day with a similar offering provided by the cafeteria. Have them provide a clean plate for your child to use.
10. Finally, some meal/snack ideas to get going:
- Trail mix (nuts, seeds, dried fruits)
- Pre-cut fruit (fruit salad, sticks, or kebabs)
- Homemade granola bars or cups of granola cereal
- Veggie kebabs with dip (carrots, cucumber, cherry tomato, red/yellow bell pepper, etc)
- Dinner leftovers in a thermos (GFCF spaghetti, soup, rice dish)
- Guacamole, mild salsa, olives, and baked corn chips
- Dip options: hummus, black bean dip, avocado spread, nut butters, honey
- Shredded beet, carrot, and apple salad with raisins.
- Fruit pudding or smoothie
- Water should be the drink of choice, but for variety try homemade lemonade or an almond or rice milk
This should be a springboard for getting your creativity flowing and thinking positively about the school year menu ahead. It’s easy once you get past the transition and create a simple routine.
Nourishing Journey is a place where parents of children with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders come to get support, community and information on natural, dietary approaches to managing their child’s special needs.