Open thread: Vegetarians, vegans, and people with food allergies

A little late with the open thread today. I’m busy doing summer things and getting out. It’s great not to feel like I have to tackle the laundry and the grocery shopping right away. Just a relaxing weekend…


I’m amazed when I dine with one of my many vegetarian friends (I don’t have any vegan friends) how challenging it can be for them to find something appropriate to eat. And another of my friends has Celiac’s Disease. She has such few options in most restaurants that she really can’t eat out at all.

The reason I’m “lumping” these people together is that finding appropriate food outside of the home is very hard for all of them. And then what happens at school? My friend with Celiac’s found out in college so she didn’t have to navigate the public school system with a special dietary need. But I wonder what people have to go through to eat in school cafeterias…

Most schools do offer a “meatless” alternative (cheese sandwiches, pb&j sandwiches, maybe bean burritos if you are lucky), but “meatless” is often not synonomous with “quality” (as I witnessed, and digested, firsthand). I’m not saying that schools should have to “cater” to kids with allergies every day. But I believe that what I have been eating at school is very wheat and meat heavy. Couldn’t that be scaled back a bit? I’m wondering how kids with special dietary needs survive in the cafeteria.

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66 thoughts on “Open thread: Vegetarians, vegans, and people with food allergies”

  1. I've been a vegetarian since I was 11 years old. I'm 24 now, but when I was in school, we didn't have any vegetarian options. Some days we'd have a meatless pasta, but rarely. Anyhow, I always wound up eating fries and nacho sauce they sold for a quarter in HS. I intend to raise my future children vegetarian and I'm beginning to think I'm going to homeschool them. Schools are scary nowadays, and I don't want to be worrying about what my kids eat on top of that!

  2. My son cannot have artificial food dyes or MSG. I have horrible problems with him and food at school! We were on the free lunch program, but I had to make his lunch because EVERYTHING had food dye in it (he had a doctor note AND it was written into his IEP and still the school was noncompliant). Even the milk was flavored and colored. The breading on the fried food (a staple) had MSG. The sides – canned fruit cocktail, jello, EVEN THE CANNED PEARS were dipped in red food dye.

    Even worse were the teachers who would give out candy as "motivators" and rewards. They would give him M&Ms, etc. even though I explicitly sent in 'safe' candy (like Tootsie rolls, Hershey kisses, etc.) The safe candy sat in the teacher's aide's desk and they gave him Skittles. It was a major problem for me.

    (My son was in a special ed. classroom, that had snack making and food prep as part of the therapy/education/community building. Which I think is FANTASTIC – except for the food coloring thing.)

    What really got me was that I would send in "safe" food – like MSG pepperoni when they were making pizza in class – and they WOULDN'T USE IT.

  3. I should also add that we do not eat meat on certain days for religious reasons (Catholic) and the school was sensitive enough to provide a decent meatless option on those days. At my son's current school there is also the option of a salad instead of the whatever beige fried thing they are offering. But, even in a different state, the colored milk persists. Grape milk? Rootbeer milk? Gross.

  4. I'm lactose intolerant and also have sensitivity to tomatoes and mangoes. I also do not eat red meat, all of which limit my food choices. There are many times when I notice how few vegetarian/vegan choices there are on menus. Cheese and meat are on everything, which is very frustrating.

  5. My daughter has peanut and treenut allergies and she simply does not participate in any food-related event at school. It makes her sad to not have the same foods her friends are having, but I try hard to provide "safe" foods that she enjoys so that she doesn't feel like she's missing out too much. While she is really good at keeping herself safe, it's tough for little ones. It's even tougher for me to leave my daughter in the trust of teachers that may inadvertantly feed her something that could kill her 🙁 I have to re-educate the teachers and students each year on how to keep her safe.

  6. I packed my kids' meals for the entire year – except the 2 days my son wanted a hot lunch – due to my daughter's food allergies. We recently discovered that she has outgrown the food allergies, but I'll still be packing their lunchboxes next year.
    My biggest concern – even though the school food was nut-free – was that they probably weren't as cautious as I'd like about cross-contamination (my daughter had peanut and egg allergies).

  7. In my experience it is much harder in the elementary schools than it is in the secondary schools. And options vary greatly from district to district.

    My son is vegetarian and when he was in elementary school there were no vegetarian options at all(except randomly, cheese pizza) so we packed his lunch. His high school was a little bit better, it still had very few vegetarian options (mostly just fries, cheese pizza, and canned veggies), so he could either bring something from home or just eat some fries or something like that. However, once he got to college he didn't have any trouble finding plenty to eat.

    My daughter is vegan. We moved and she attended a different high school. She packed herself a lunch about half the time, but when she didn't, there were some decent options for her. Her high school had a full salad bar and fresh fruit available every day. She could also eat some of the varieties of bagels they had (the cafeteria workers were very nice about checking ingredients for her). On Tuesdays and Thursdays she could get a hummus plate which she absolutely loved. It had hummus, pita triangles, grapes, cucumber slices, and carrot sticks.

    She is in college now, too. Her college is smaller and doesn't have as many dining options as her brother's, so she now lives off campus and cooks her own food. However, during her freshman year she lived in a dorm and the food was all clearly labeled so she knew exactly what was vegan and while there wasn't always a lot of variety there was always enough to make a well-balanced, if sometimes boring, meal. And some days, which she called "super vegan days", there were some wonderfully delicious options.

  8. Perhaps you won't want to give too much personal info away about your friend but my immediate question was "how'd she fare with the college cafeteria food?" Also, a friend of mine recently caught a segment on NPR that was discussing school lunches and there was reference to a military need for bigger, stronger kids that helped shaped the USDA requirements that are around today (perhaps back in the late '40s?). I wasn't able to find info on this segment and was wondering if you had heard anything similar.

  9. I have the impression that at least here (I'm British) the vegetarian thing has got through to the schools. There are so many children from different religious backgrounds in so many schools that they had to find a way of feeding the kids that don't eat any meat or any pork in order not to be subject to legal battles for discrimination. This benefitted the kids who were veggie by ethical choice of the parents or themselves – these are the people without a defined lobby group and hence pretty powerless.

    I don't know how allergies etc are managed by our schools; I think that some special meals were prepared in my (very good) school cafeteria (I'm talking 7 years ago) for kids with allergies like coeliac disease etc and the kitchen just never, ever used nuts. The option though after that is packed lunch of some form. I was such a fussy kid that my mum did this for me a great deal. Much cheaper, and I could eat my vegetarian food and know what I had for lunch every day (cheese and marmite. Sometimes egg.) before I got there. Thanks mum.

  10. Aside: In Britain, the military need for healthy conscripts brought about the NHS. Just sayin'… Somehow an obesity crisis (on both sides of the Atlantic) doesn't seem to be drumming up the same kind of activity!

  11. This is one of many reasons why all schools should have a policy of 100% transparency when it comes to ingredients.
    As I always say, it's not just about calories, carbs and fat grams!

    Parents and students have a right to know exactly what is in the food.

  12. Personally the school told me they just needed a doctor's note verifying that I had the restrictions that I had. They said they could then accommodate all of my needs (which were few). Lunch prices didn't change either but I was told they were more expensive for the school by the lunch services director that I worked with, believe the extra cost was sent to the taxpayers which obviously isn't a good thing…but that's how it went with me.

  13. I was diagnosed with Celiac disease just before my senior year of high school, our school really didn't have any options for me to eat so I just packed my own lunches. College was a little better just because there were more options to eat everyday, but it was still tough. I ate a lot of salads and rice and plain meat. Our school finally started offering gluten free pastas towards the end of my Freshman year of college…but they weren't so great so I didn't eat them that often. I often even had to resort to taking apart hamburgers to have just the meat so I had something to eat! My trick was to keep lots of snacks in my dorm room and even some things to cook because we had a small kitchen on our floor.

  14. Oh and also just a side note, when I entered college a friend of the family with food allergies and Celiac told us that under the American's with Disabilities act most places like schools have to cater to people with medical dietary needs. So my parents called up my school and talked to them about it and it was just a couple months after that when my school started offering gluten free options.

  15. I'm a first time mom with a 17 month old son who is severely allergic to dairy, soy, tree nuts and peanuts. Just the thought of navigating around daycare, nursery school, pre-K, and then elementary school makes my head hurt and my heart ache.Birthday parties and holidays are hard enough!

    Eating out is 99% impossible. I cook everything from scratch (had to cut my work hours in half), so we don't go out much at all. We can eat at Chipotle and a local restaurant is serving us for the first time tomorrow morning, for father's day, the owner promises an allergen-free meal. My husband misses going out for brunch, so the owner & I have been working on a menu all week and we're going to give it a shot! I'm bringing my son back-up food and of course two epi-pens jrs, so I'll be prepared…

  16. Our school district does offer a veggie option every day (sometimes it even sounds interesting, like veggie curry!), but my daughter has Celiac Disease *and* we are vegetarian outside of our home (I buy organic, ethically raised chicken every now and then, because I feel bad about how limited our children's diets are, but we don't eat factory raised meat). Anyway, I pack her lunch every day, the end. Our school has a lot of food events – pot lucks, class celebrations, cooking sessions. I am in contact with the teacher and the whole class early and often about gluten, but I'm not asking for any special accommodations, just notification of food events. I send in appropriate food substitutions for her, and try not to groan each time they announce another potluck. It makes school extra challenging, for sure.

  17. Christie–I heard the same NPR thing. And now the military is trying to change school lunches again because all the students trying to enter the military are unhealthy.

    I only went to public school for elementary school, but from what I remember there weren't really any options for alternative diets. I knew one girl that was lactose intolerant so she was allowed to drink water rather than milk, but that was about it. Everyone else with special needs (diabetes, religious, allergies) had to bring their lunch.
    My sister is now in elementary school and she has a tree nut/peanut allergy. From what I understand the school has banned nuts across the board, but I doubt that applies to foods that are processed with nuts (which can affect those with serious allergies).

  18. I'm basically a vegetarian (I only eat meat in circumstances where I know the animal was raised humanely) and discovered about a year ago that I'm gluten intolerant. However, I'm pretty sure at my Middle/high school I would have done OK. In addition to whatever the hot meal was for the day, the kitchen always put out a salad bar, baked potatoes and a couple soups. It would have been a nightmare though for someone with a peanut allergy because the school handed out free peanut butter sandwiches during a mid-morning break (I think they feared if we were hungry we wouldn't focus). Wow, we complained about the food a lot there, but they were pretty darn accommodating!

    College would be pretty easy too since most places offer a wide variety of stuff even in your basic dining hall. I do find that if I'm not in a pretty nice restaurant that I have difficulty finding stuff to eat, so I'm not surprised to hear people with allergies having issues with their cafeterias.

  19. I am currently a junior at a public college and my best friend at school has celiac disease. Our dining hall in general offers some pretty nasty stuff, but thank goodness, last year they installed a huge salad bar (which I take advantage of nearly every meal). Not only does the food look/taste gross most of the time, but in general it is unhealthy. Appetizing fresh fruit is rare, and french fries, noodles, and pizza are everywhere. Anyway, my friend with Celiac has a lot of trouble eating on campus – when we were freshmen, her parents tried to get the school to provide gluten-free options but they refused, so the parents threatened a lawsuit. Thank goodness she has some things she can eat now, but it's still generally disgusting. I should also mention that she has to check all the food labels and a lot of times she cannot eat things because the sauce has something in it she can't eat. Food improvement really needs to start in colleges, too – I wish Sodexho would realize that.

  20. sad thing is now we have children hat are deathly allergic to peanuts and many schools have gone peanut free. I know a small child that goes into apoplectic shock if she is in the same room. OR if someone has eaten peanut butter and kisses her!

    Many more allergies have been growing in numbers with our youth. Even more reason that the schools should start a diet of healthy fresh foods!!

  21. I became a vegetarian as a freshman in high school. I was never the type to eat school lunch frequently, so it didn't affect my eating habits at school too much. The only constant vegetarian foods sold at my school's cafeteria were salad and bagels (and believe me, you did not want to eat those salads). The elementary school I work at now never provides an alternative to their hot lunch. When I asked the lunch ladies why they did not offer a vegetarian option, they shrugged and said that it wasn't in high demand. This bothers me to a degree beyond explanation.

  22. Anybody else seeing a problem with flavored/colored milk? When I was in school (I'm 21) all we had was regular milk and chocolate. It was an extremely rare thing to have strawberry milk. I have never seen any other flavors/colors.
    Is it just a regional thing? I'm very curious.

  23. Eating Gluten free is a nightmare; my mother was diagnosed with Celiac's about five years ago, and it's entirely changed the structure of our family outings – she can't eat out (she lives in a rural area and kitchens aren't large enough to keep gluten-free areas), so we don't go out anymore. If she wants "fresh" gluten-free bread replacement products, I have to bring them when I visit (from the bakery which is two hours away from where she lives).

    Growing up, I had a milk allergy (which I thankfully outgrew), and that was a nightmare in the very rural school cafeteria. I finally ended up brown bagging it every day since it was impossible to get food that tasted okay – dairy was really big (cheese on everything). I doubt that's changed since I've been out. I remember trying to get breakfast at school a couple times but it was pretty much cereal (which means milk) so I couldn't. Out of curiosity, is there a breakfast program at your school? I can't seem to remember you mentioning it.

    I'm actually kind of curious about the differences in school lunches regarding rural vs urban schools, because I think my hometown still uses a "traditional" model since the entire student body is less than 300 students.

  24. I'm 13, a vegetarian, and I have been my whole life. For me, it hasn't actually been that hard to eat the right kind of food.
    When I used to live in America, I'm pretty sure I always brought a packed lunch – PB&J and fruits – but if there was something relatively good, like pizza, I'd eat that instead.
    I now go to a private school. It's an international school so there are people from a whole lot of countries who attend, which means there are lots of people who can't eat certain things for religious or medical reasons. The food served in the cafeteria is quite nice, and they always have a vegetarian option. I'm a picky eater and recently I've been trying to become healthy, so I don't eat the food from the cafeteria – instead, it's PB&J and apple sauce every day for me.
    One of the things which annoys me a bit, though, is that even though there are hot meals, we serve tons of sugary drinks and sweets.
    But for people with food allergies, vegetarians, and religious reasons for not eating certain foods, our school fares pretty well.

  25. well the fact that I've worked in my school districts main kitchen (where we prepare food and ship it to the elementary schools to cook, or assemble and package all sack lunches) as well as having subbed out to both middle schools and high schools; both of which make most of their food on site from recipes made by a dietitian…

    Im worried.
    (and reading your blog scared the heck outta me that ppl would actually feed children that garbage)

    Not because the food in our school district isnt healthy, but because its LOADED with milk products, soy and MSG. All of which my 4 children are VERY allergic to.

    My oldest is 5, starting kinder next year. Has an IEP that states what he can and cant have, to which they were (mostly) good about in his special needs and community pre-schools. But I've seen first hand that a lot of that gets thrown out the window when they ask a child "what do you want to eat?" my kids LOVE all the foods they cant eat, then I end up with a kids as sick as a dog.

    My two oldest daughters (2 & 3) are both ovo-vegetarians (by choice, I cant get them to eat red meat or pork for the life of me) which will make their dietary choices even harder. I am lucky that they do provide salads at the school, but honestly, most of the salads are weighed and packaged before they get to the kids and have some type of product they wont eat or are allergic to.

    As to the super sugary beverages? Our school district broke contract with the soda companies and took all of the machines out of the school. All that is offered on campus for drinking -> water, fat free milk, 2% and chocolate milk. The elementary schools do not offer fat free milk

  26. I volunteer at a food pantry. We have one client family with a daughter who has a thyroid issue and has to be careful with her diet (I don't know the details – and it's none of my business). She's on free lunch but pretty much can't eat any of it. We're not supposed to, but we do everything we can to slip extra items into her family's food pantry bags, because we know they're struggling to send her a proper lunch every day.

  27. As a carnivore (yes, that means NO PLANTS), I don't expect anyone else to cater to my choices. I just quietly sit and eat and don't let myself get dragged into arguments. But some parents like Margot here have had a devil of a time with in-laws feeding her youngest stuff they're not supposed to, despite the obvious health improvements zero carb has brought to her entire family:

    Peggy, on the other hand, hasn't been getting this kind of flack from her ex or the day care workers, who can all see how ZC is helping her and her daughter thrive:

    Regardless of the reasons for our choices, those of us who choose to eat differently from the SAD (Standard American Diet) owe it to ourselves and everyone else to accept full responsibility for those choices. Every situation is different, and you can't always morally justify insisting that someone else accomodate your choices.

    "Try to please everybody, and you end up pleasing nobody."

  28. Many parents send in "safe" foods for their kids with allergies. Teachers in my school always make sure their students have the "safe" food on hand when a birthday or party is coming up. I am so fortunate to work with a group of caring individuals. More and more I notice that parents are bringing in fruit trays instead of cupcakes for parties! I love a good cupcake, but how much sugar in necessary during the school day! Our food service (current and future) is peanut free.

    Ad a vegetarian I find it VERY difficult to eat out. Beans, cheese dishes, pasta sauce, rice…anything could have chicken broth or lard in it. I always have to ask about the preparation methods with I go out to eat. One time the server insisted the dish I ordered was "animal free," but when it arrived (smelling like fish) she admitted there was fish sauce in it. I usually eat the same few items when we do go out to eat. However, it is difficult to get enough protein in my meal when eating out.

  29. I have been a vegan for almost 4 years and except for a few times when I was driving across America I've never found it difficult to eat out.

    Most cities have at least one vegan or vegetarian restaurant and even places that don't there are plenty of thai food, indian, italian and ethiopian recipes that have vegan options.

    My sister is allergic to black pepper; and a vegan; if she can eat out, anyone can.

  30. I've been vegetarian since I was 9 and recently went vegan. In school, I always brought my lunch from home since the only vegetarian option was peanut butter and jelly, and it was silly to pay 2 dollars to eat pb&j when I could just bring it from home. As a vegetarian and now vegan, I've never had much trouble eating out–you have to ask a few more questions, but I've always found restaurants to be very willing to work with me to find something I can eat. The exception to this for me has been fine dining restaurants–it seems like the more expensive the restaurant, the less likely they are to have something vegan on the menu, or a dish that can be easily made vegan. Go figure.

  31. What a can of worms you opened Mrs. Q!
    This could be a long one.
    My oldest is allergic to peanuts & soy. Those are the main ones although when she was small other legumes caused problems too (peas, greenbeans, garbanzos, lentils)as well as some the tomato plants although she could eat most tomato sauces, but it was hit or miss. Obviously she took her lunch to school every day.

    I used to go in to train her teachers every year on the use of the epi-pen and used the opportunity to scare them to death. Seriously. If there was a food fight in the lunchroom, my kid could have died. We had at least 3 epi-pens in the school at all times. One in the office, one in her main teacher's room locked in her desk and one in the library because it was close to the art and music rooms.

    The school board used to send us forms to fill out for a modified school lunch plan for her, but we just never wanted to risk it and I never thought she'd eat the food they offered anyway.

    She learned from a young age to read labels and to not eat anything that wasn't labeled. Why? Self preservation. Her 3rd grade social studies teacher gave them leftover halloween candy that she ate on the bus because she was hungry. By the time she got off the bus she was having a reaction to the itty bitty amount of actual peanut in the taffy she at ingested. There is NOTHING like having your child look up at you with tears in their eyes and ask you if they are going to die. Nothing.
    Lucky for her we keep an Epi-pen on hand and plenty of benadryl and her daddy is a critical care RN.
    The next day I went in to talk to the principal. His only reaction was to worry about a lawsuit. He didn't even really appologize and neither did the teacher.
    It really took a kid dying the next county over for the schools in this area to really sit up and take notice of food allergies.
    As a parent I see the good and the bad in the way the schools have handled the peanut/tree nut allergies. By banning all nuts, it may ease parents concerns when their children are small but it doesn't teach them responsibility either.
    I also don't like the segregation of the kids who have allergies…rather if you bring a peanutbutter sandwish you should sit at the peanut table..
    I teach 3 yr olds. we post all food allergies in the rooms and are very careful. At Lunch I sit a peanut allergy child at the end of a table with a child on either side that doesn't have peanut butter that day. I don't make a big deal out of it. Parents are told, so that when they bring in treats (which have to be store bought so we can read ingrediant lists)they can bring something that everyone in the class can enjoy.
    Hands and faces are washed after we eat.

    Today, I don't think my oldest would be able to eat in a school lunch. The number of ingrediants in any food and the amount of soy used as an extender in the meat, breads, breading for chicken, thickener for gravey…the list goes on.

  32. I also have Celiac Disease, and I have been following the blog from the beginning and have yet to see a meal I would be able to eat safely. Luckily for me I was not diagnosed until I was completely out of school because I would have hard a VERY hard time finding foods to eat. Even if a meal/food does not contain gluten, I would be very hesitant to eat it if prepared in a school cafeteria because the risk of cross contamination is very high. Some Celiacs, like myself, are so sensitive that a single drop of flour, etc. from another product would make me extremely sick.

    For that same reason I am unable to eat at restaurants for the most part. Although many restaurants now have gluten free menus, I still often get sick due to contamination back in the kitchen. If I had a child with Celiac disease I would not allow him or her to eat in the school cafeterias.

    I just wonder what families who qualify for free school lunches do when their child has something like Celiac Disease or other serious allergies. I know it isn't really fair to expect the cafeteria to cater to such strict diets, but it also isn't really fair to expect these families to provide them when they clearly can't afford to. I don't know what the solution would be in that situation..

  33. I enjoy eating out, but I have a couple of limitations. I can't eat onions, MSG, artificial sugars, or foods containing nitrates because those things trigger migraines for me. I'm also kind of a vegetarian. I was very strict about it for five years, and recently have been eating some chicken and turkey, but only when I cook it. Additionally I am what is commonly referred to as a "picky eater." Basically I make sure that when I'm invited over for dinner I always bring something to share that I know I can eat, in case someone forgets about the onion thing, and I've got one thing I'll eat at most of the restaurants in the area. I still managed to get really sick recently because I never would have imagined that my Great Aunt Joan would have switched from sugar to nutrasweet in her cookies- I didn't realize until I ate four in rapid succession…

    When I was in school I didn't have any of those limitations (except being picky), and I still remember not eating anything at lunch. Even when my mom packed my lunch I wouldn't touch anything. I was just too overstimulated in the cafeteria. I remember getting notes from my mom begging me to please at least drink the chocolate milk in my thermos, but I usually just gave away most of my food or threw it out and then had a bagel and cream cheese when I got home. My mom was pretty good at loading me up on milk, yogurt, and oatmeal before I left for school so I'd be able to get through the day without eating.

    Now I work with autistic students in a public school, many of whom get free breakfast and lunch. People who have autism are prone to sensory disorders, and I imagine that might account for the fact that our kids eat so little at breakfast and lunch. We actually started having breakfast in our classroom because some of these kids weren't eating anything all day. Moving to the classroom is also good because kids can get seconds from us on food that they do eat- for instance, there's one child who only eats the school yogurt for breakfast, and never touches lunch, so we make sure he gets extra yogurt.

    It actually feels really counterintuitive to me sometimes. I know about all the problems with school food and I'm very dubious about the nutritional quality of the food at my school. And yet I still urge the kids to try a little of everything, applaud them when they actually eat their chicken nuggets or sirloin steak, and I breathe a sigh of relief on nacho day because I know some of our kids really love that ground beef and cheese sauce (their behavior is much better after that meal too). I'm not really sure what to do, but I like Mrs. Q's idea about a salad bar. I'm not sure how many of our kids would eat salad, but I know many of them would eat carrots, apples, crouton pieces, and maybe even tofu, in addition to or instead of the hot meal.

  34. My oldest daughter is allergic to dairy, eggs, peanuts, treenuts, fish, shellfish, and recently outgrew soy.

    She doesn't eat the cafeteria food. Even if they made her a "Safe" meal – the cross contamination risk is just too high. Even though she doesn't eat school lunch, I still worry about the cafeteria. It's like sending my daughter into a death trap every day. That room in the school is practically dripping in milk and slathered in peanut butter.

    What is a big deal, is class parties. There is always a kid having a birthday or some holiday or event going on that involves food. I keep safe treats and snacks in her classroom just in case I'm not notified of those events ahead of time. If I am, then I make every effort to have a similar item for her to enjoy. I can see that sometimes it is emotionally difficult for her though.

    We have actually been really lucky to have so many people sensitive to her needs. I have had parents of other kids call me up and ask me specifically what she can have and they will bring a birthday treat that my daughter can enjoy with the rest of the class. I never expect someone to do that, but when they do, it really means the world to us.

    I have also found that the kids in her class are very kind and sensitive about it. It is those kids who are telling their parents that they want to bring in a safe birthday treat so my daughter can enjoy it too. I have sat in her classroom during a party and seen kids say "oh I need to wash my hands before I go play with Mary!"

  35. I work at a preschool which does not serve lunch on a regular basis. The kids bring their lunches from home and we have a strict no-trading rule. Once a month we cook a meal together, and since we have three children with milk allergies we work with the parents to make sure there is a safe alternative for them. We sometimes serve yogurt for an afternoon snack, and always have soy yogurt on hand for those who need it. Once in a blue moon we'll grill hot dogs for a treat, and then everyone gets the milk-free dogs and buns.

    For birthdays, we encourage the parents of the kids with allergies to keep milk-free treats in our freezer so their kids will have some alternative if the birthday child's cake or whatever isn't safe (or might not be). Many other parents however know about the allergies and send milk-free foods, like juice-based popsicles, for their children's birthday treats.

    We're a small preschool, and all our kids with special dietary needs have the same allergy, so this isn't hard to keep track of. I don't know how larger schools with multiple allergies deal with it!

  36. i went vegetarian my last year of high school, in 1994, in a district that was a mix of rural and suburbs. the only vegetarian option for hot lunch was during lent, when the cheese pizza was swapped for pepporoni pizza. as a result, i mostly ate from the al a carte line. to be honest, i mostly ate cheesesticks and milkshakes. looking back, i can't believe that's what i ate regularly. but to be fair, i often had gym or swimming class scheduled right before lunch, so i was overheated and just wanted something quick to refuel.

    now i can usually find something at any restaurant, though i still prefer to cook from scratch at home. it just depends on the community. i can easily find more options where i live in the city compared to my parents' suburban neighborhood, and i'll admit to being a bit worried when i visit my sister in louisana.

  37. Throughout High School my son often brought lunch to school due to the lack of vegetarian options. When he purchased lunch it was likely a side salad made with iceburg lettuce, nacho's or french fries. I believe the pizza was considered inedible.

    Eating out with my family can be a challenge. My son and I are veg while my husband and daugher enjoy eating meat. We usually choose ethnic restaurants like Indian, Thai,Asian or Italian. Sadly, typical American fare has very few vegetarian options, sports bars have virtually no options. I often wonder what that says about Americans, that our own food culture is based on heavy meats and fried foods and so little produce.

  38. I hate that it takes a potentially lethal allergy to get junk out of food. Artificial dyes, colors, MSG, preservatives etc, are bad for all kids – they should be allowed in any food for anyone. Our reactions to these food aren't as serious as a seizure or hives, but trouble concentrating, bloating, digestion issues – these are still side effects.

    …Those that have children with food issues, you might want to investigate a "504 Plan". It is part of special education law that if a medical condition can affect a child at school the school has to provide accommodations. (most often used for kids with ADD, mild autism, etc when they don't need a special education instruction, just some things in place-like sensory breaks, or larger paper/pencils to write with etc.)

    I would assume food would fall under the 504 category because Celiac Disease and allergies are medical conditions that can interfere with learning, but it might take a good advocate/special education lawyer to get things approved.

    If anyone has a law background, I'd love to know if 504s can be written to provide special diets.

  39. In our district, we got the school to post pictures of lunch (their own) along with ingredients lists and nutritional information – but they admit that the information is not always accurate. (I tried to do what Mrs. Q did, but openly, and was stopped by the lunch administrators.) I agree 100% with Dr. Rubin – and, in fact, we presented a case that that should be part of the Child Nutrition Act to our Congresswoman, Jan Schakowsky – who was responsive to the idea.

    Contact your legislators and ask that suppliers of school food be required to offer accurate ingredient and nutritional information, in a format that is easily accessible to school nutritionists. School nutritionists should provide, in turn, a nutritional label with an ingredients list for each lunch as a whole.

    A vegan parent at our school worked long and hard with our district's nutritionist to create menus that could be made vegan by omitting, for instance, the meat in a meat-and-bean-burrito and the meat in a pasta option. Unfortunately, I heard kids whose parents intended them to get vegetarian food wound up with meat in their meals.

  40. There is a huge difference between not eating a food by choice or not eating a food because of an allergy/intolerance/medical reasons. For those who choose not to eat food because of personal choice or conviction, that is your choice. For those who have been forced to stop eating certain foods or face negative reactions, up to possible death, that is not a choice.

    Overall, healthier foods should be served to people, whether in a cafeteria or in restaurants. A wide variety of choices should be offered to all. But for those with certain food preferences, please stop whining. There are those who can die from eating a minuscule amount of certain foods and that is not by choice.

  41. Anonymous @ 10:21am
    My son did have his food issues written into his IEP but still there were "mistakes" made. Yes, food issues/allergies can be written into a 504 or IEP, although documentation from a medical professional is necessary.

    My younger son recieves speech therapy and also has food items written into his IEP. In his case, we moved to TX and I had to sign a waiver and have it included that he was allowed to have candy as part of his therapy.

    In TX there is a law against foods of Minimal Nutritional Value in the classroom. Ironic – kids can't bring cupcakes to school anymore, it's against the law, but the school can serve cookies and cupcakes in the cafeteria.

  42. My kids have life-threatening allergies. My daughter is allergic to peanuts and oats and my son to dairy and tree nuts (no not lactose intolerant, actual deadly allergy!!!), and I send thier food every day. At considerable cost to me since we'd qualify for free lunch. There's no way I could EVER trust a cafeteria to make their food safe enough and that is just a part of life.

    Even if the school did claim to be able to make something safe for them, I would never allow them to eat it. It is too high a risk.

    Lucky for me my lactose intolerance didn't rear it's ugly head until college, and I was able to get Lactaid milk in the cafeteria and just avoid highly cheesed food items. But I wasn't going to die from exposure to milk, nor was I too young to identify potentially milk-containing foods.

  43. We're vegetarian, and my daughter, who is going into sixth grade in the fall, takes a packed lunch to school the majority of the time. However, I have to say her elementary school is pretty decent about offering meatless (although not vegan) options – they have bean burritos, cheese pizza, mac & cheese, pasta with meatballs served separately instead of meat sauce, and a fruit and yogurt plate. Daughter says that most of it is "gross" and won't eat it (she does like the pizza, which comes from Domino's, and the fruit and yogurt plate), but at least they're trying.

    Eating out has rarely been a problem for us; there are very few places where we can't find at least something to eat, even if most of it contains cheese. I decided when I first stopped eating meat 20 years ago that I wasn't going to make life any harder than it had to be, so while I ask about obvious things like chicken stock in soups, I don't ask the server to go into the kitchen and verify that every trace of my dish is animal-free. But I do hate when they cook my grilled cheese right after a burger and it comes out soaked in meat grease. Yuck.

  44. How do people with special dietary needs deal with a lack of school food options? Being a vegetarian and having Celiac Disease, I make and bring my own lunch to school everyday. The school cafeteria really does not have any options for me.

    However, even if they did, I'd be very wary of it. I simply don't trust the cafeteria (where ketchup and tater tots are considered "vegetables" and the so-called "meals" have virtually no nutritional value) and I bet many parents would have the same difficulty. I can see that–if school cafeterias did provide options for people with special dietary needs–it would be an enormous endeavour. Especially for those with food allergies and food intolerances, cross-contamination is a serious and potentially dangerous issue. It's nice to think that schools could offer more for people with special diets, but I don't see how it could be feasible logistically unless there is a radical overhaul of the school lunch program.

  45. To Anonymous who wanted to know about 504 plans for kids with food issues – yes, they could qualify. I know kids with celiac disease who have 504 plans. These are written not though special education but through the counselor's office. If you call the counselor, they can help you with what documentation you need to get a 504 in place.

    I can tell you that as a teacher, I am vigilant about kids with food allergies. I never serve candy or anything edible as prizes, etc. My school has outlawed birthday treats. Instead, once a month, we have a school wide celebration for kids who have birthdays that month and the whole school gets one healthier snack. That way, it's healthy AND they can take all the kids with food allergies into consideration.

    Also, as a vegetarian (life-long), it really isn't hard to eat out. Pretty much all ethnic places have vegetarian stuff. If worse comes to worse, a salad or grilled cheese off the kids menu will do. I do try to check menus before I go out to a new place though. When I was in elementary school, I took my lunch. In middle/high school, I went to private school that served family style lunch (no bringing option) and they had a salad/fruit bar plus sandwich bar so I could always eat that stuff if the main meal didn't have something for me.

  46. @ Arianna:

    It's good that you are trying to become more healthy, but how is eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and applesauce everyday healthy?

  47. My daughter learned at a VERY young age to be her own advocate for her food allergy (spinach). In preschool and her private kindergarten I was given a weekly menu ahead of time to monitor for any possible allergy foods. If one was to be served, I had to pack her lunch. But, this took considerable effort, since I had to know the ingredients of EVERY meal and every time the cook created a new dish, I would have to ask about whether spinach was added.

    But I must say, I was so proud to watch her go through the lunch line recently and ask the workers about the meal and whether what she saw was spinach. And then double check by saying "Are you sure? Because if it is, I'm going to get some serious hives." A lot of people just say no without actually looking at the ingredients, so she's learned to remind them that allergies ARE serious! It's just another reason why there needs to be WAY MORE transparency in the school lunch system. If I knew ahead of time what was in the lunch, I could warn her.

  48. …what about dietary restrictions due to religion? ( I know these aren't allergies and it is a choice to follow a special diet for religious purposes)

    If you are in a public school and want to keep kosher, or vegetarian due to Hindu religion, etc. Is that just a "too bad, this is your free lunch, take it or leave it?"

    I imagine if there is a big portion of the students all one religion the cafeteria might adjust the lunches, but if there is a mixture? (My school is incredibly non-diverse. Of 600+ students 99% are caucasian and some form of Christian, I know a few Jewish students that normally get free lunch, but the week of Passover bring. I just wonder what kids do when they were to face that every day) Somebody has posted about working in a kosher school, but I wasn't sure if that was a public school or a religious based school.

  49. My son is allergic to dairy protein and food dyes. School was a nightmare for lunch options. See, whey and casein are in almost all prepared foods! Plus they add protein and who wouldn't want that? Grr…

    The best part? If he bought his school lunch (select days that we picked out together after I was able to get ingredient lists – private school), we were charged for the milk carton even though he couldn't drink it and didn't take it. There was no discount of the $.55 that milk by itself cost.

    Oh, and the best day that we selected a meal, and they changed the menu that day. Cheeseburgers or nachos. Ummmm…my 1st grade child ate fries and canned pears that day for lunch. Even though they were *adding* the cheese to the burgers themselves, they wouldn't make one without the cheese for him. *sigh*

  50. Thank you everyone who has commented! I think this open thread really hit a nerve. This is an area where school districts need to improve. Sadly, I believe that it will take a "wrongful death-type" lawsuit for there to be real action on this.

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