Boy receiving lunch and an apple from parent If your child has been diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you know that the condition pushes you to rethink all of your mealtime routines. With celiac disease, even traces of gluten can trigger an inflammatory immune reaction, so separate surfaces and cooking implements must be used for preparing food with and without gluten.

This can be a challenge in the kitchen. But for children with the condition, the biggest eating difficulties come when they aren’t at home. School lunches are the meal outside the home that these kids need to deal with day after day, week after week.

We spoke with Janel Steinhoff, RDN, LDN, a clinical dietician with the Center for Celiac Disease at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), and with Ritu Verma, MBChB, the center’s Director, for ideas on making gluten-free school lunches that children enjoy eating.

“As parents, we sometimes get stuck on ideas of what a child’s lunch should be,” says Dr. Verma. “The convention is a sandwich, or one main item, maybe with a piece of fruit on the side. That can get in the way of thinking creatively of food your child will like. A collection of snacks can be a lunch. Pancakes can be a lunch. The main thing is to listen to your child to find out what your child wants.”

Steinhoff echoes the importance of involving children in planning their lunches. “A picky eater may want the same lunch every day,” she says. “You need to work with that. If you get too creative with these kids, they won’t eat it. And if what they eat for lunch isn’t a full, nutritionally balanced meal, you can make up for it at breakfast and dinner. For other kids, the challenge is avoiding boredom. They can be turned off by their lunch if there isn’t variety and an element of happy surprise.”

School lunch tips from the Experts

Steinhoff offers ideas for breaking from convention in school lunches, and packing food your child will love.

  • Get your kids involved in planning their own gluten-free lunches. Bring them with you when you shop for groceries and encourage them to read the food label and pick out something new they would like to try. Then have them participate in making their lunches.
  • Try alternatives to the standard lunch bag or box with food in plastic bags.
    • Bento boxes — the divided lunch containers long a staple in Japan —allow you to create a gluten-free lunch that combines portions of different dishes. A stylish bento box with a tasty and intriguing array of food inside can make your child feel special and unique in a positive way.
    • Insulated food jars, which keep food hot for several hours, allow you to send warm food for lunch. That might be a reheated portion of a gluten-free dinner from the night before, or a dish you prepare specially for lunch. These jars are available in different styles and colors from several manufacturers.
  • For younger children, take an extra minute or two to cut food into shapes — fruit moons or mini-sandwich stars. Add faces or other designs to food, using raisins.
  • Include dips, such as hummus, fruit or cheese spread, or nut butter. (Sunflower seed butter is an option if the school has rules to protect kids with nut allergies.)
  • Make fruit and cheese assortments. The same food in a different and colorful presentation can be a delightful surprise for a child.
  • Ask the school nurse if it is possible to store frozen lunches at school, and to heat them in a microwave. That can give you additional options. You can save time by shopping for packaged gluten-free meals. Or you can freeze portions of a favorite dinner dish to enjoy as a lunch some time later.

The CHOP website has a helpful list of gluten-free foods, which you can refer to as you consider new ideas for combining ingredients.

Steinhoff and Dr. Verma both emphasize that your role as a parent isn’t to be the most creative cook in the world. Your child might hate it if you try. Instead, they encourage you to listen to your children, to involve them in shopping for and preparing gluten-free lunches they will enjoy. They also urge you to push yourself to try things that may be less conventional. Your child’s lunches may end up being very different from the ones you had as a child. But if your child likes them and eats them, and is healthy, you’re succeeding.