school buses

Vegan School Lunch Ideas

Although vegan food is now seemingly everywhere, most school lunch menus remain dominated by meat, eggs, and dairy products. On a topic so crucial as feeding our children, why have we seen so little improvement? Most of the problem stems from politics and subsidies.

America’s National School Lunch Program enables meat and dairy producers to unload massive amounts of inventory to the USDA. The system is seemingly designed to benefit agribusiness at the expense of children’s health. Generations of American students have choked down chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and milk. School systems buy these foods at steep discounts thanks to heavy USDA subsidies.

This is bad for kids, bad for animals, and bad for the planet. Concerned parents can intervene.

Efforts to Reform School Lunch Programs

Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper have both done incredible work to publicize the egregious problems with school lunch programs. The reality show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution shows why meaningful reform is so hard to achieve. Ann Cooper’s book Lunch Lessons covers effective strategies and tactics for activists engaging this issue.

School lunch reform usually occurs at an agonizingly slow rate, especially in public schools. That’s because public schools must comply with numerous USDA regulations that don’t apply to private schools. Admittedly, school cafeteria offerings have somewhat improved in recent years. But chances are you won’t find your local public school’s lunch menu remotely impressive. Vegan students in particular are unlikely to be able to eat adequately at public school cafeterias.

It can require years of activism to revamp just one school district’s offerings, so parents who care about the healthfulness of what their kids eat typically rely on packed lunches.

Packing a Terrific Vegan School Lunch

Sending your child to school with a tasty and nutritious vegan lunch requires little effort. A traditional brown bag lunch has many vegan possibilities.

For the sake of convenience, many parents send their kids off to school with sandwiches made with processed meats. But these meats are dreadfully unhealthy and have been implicated in greater risk of cancer as well as childhood leukemia. Egg products pose spoilage risks when they sit at room temperature for any amount of time, so they’re generally not something that gets packed into school lunches.

So that leaves milk and cheese as the two main foods to replace. Not long ago, vegan cheeses tasted dreadful and were hard to digest. But now there are excellent options. Field Roast’s Chao slices are ideal for sandwiches. And Wayfare Foods makes several delicious smokey cheesy spreads that are sold in tubs.

Healthy & Easy Packed Lunch Ideas

You can easily prepare a good lunch in fifteen minutes. Here are key foods to include:

  • Entree: A vegan sandwich is an easy and delicious choice that you can make a thousand different ways. Choose whole-grain bread instead of white for better nutrition. For a change of pace, make a wrap with a whole grain tortilla. You may need to avoid peanut butter and other nut butters, as well as cheeses made with nuts, since these foods are forbidden at many schools due to precautions over allergies. To keep your sandwich or wrap from getting soggy, add vegan mayonnaise, mustard, or other spreads to a separate container.
  • Salad. You can purchase salad dressing in single serving packs, or better yet (and cheaper by far) just pour some dressing into tiny reusable plastic container. Pack the salad and the dressing in different containers or the greens will wilt. Remember that green leaf, spinach, or romaine is much more nutritious than iceberg lettuce.
  • Soups or Chilis: When kept in a Thermos, these are excellent foods to warm your child up on cold winter days. Keep in mind that most soups are high in sodium, so it may be wisest to pack soup only occasionally.
  • Roasted Seeds: Nuts and peanuts are protein-rich and nutritious but they’re banned from many schools because nut allergies can be fatal, and even trace exposure can trigger a severe reaction in some children. So opt for roasted sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds instead—pumpkin seeds in particular are full of calcium and iron. You can buy delicious roasted organic pumpkin seeds in single-serving foil packs.

Drinks and Desserts

Sending along a tasty drink and a sweet-but-healthy dessert is easy:

  • Drink: Unsweetened soy-milk is a better choice than juices, since most juices contain lots of sugar, no fiber, and fewer nutrients than you would expect. Additionally, soy-milk is far more nutritious than most other vegan milks. Single-serving containers of soy-milk are convenient and readily available. Better yet, buy your soy-milk large paper cartons and use a Thermos (more on that in the next section.) If you’re already including a piece of fruit in the lunch, there’s certainly no need to also pack in juice. Filtered water put into a reusable bottle will keep your child hydrated, and taste much better than what comes out of drinking fountains.
  • Cookies or Energy Bars: Several companies make vegan cookies. And Clif Bar offers special kid-sized Z-Bars ideal to pack with a school lunch.
  • Fruit: A small cluster of grapes, an apple, or an orange are easy lunch additions. Dried bananas or mangoes are great winter options for when it’s tough to find fresh fruit—check the ingredients to avoid sulfites.
  • Dark chocolate: a square of dark chocolate makes for a healthy and low-sugar dessert. Many dark chocolates list their cocoa mass. Shoot for something 80 percent or higher to minimize sugar content.

Bags and Boxes

Not so long ago, most kids brought their lunch to school either in a brown paper bag or a steel lunch box. Today, there are far better options. In particular, metal lunch boxes have given way to “soft” lunch boxes that are lighter and provide better insulation.

One newly-popular school lunch trend is a plastic bento box. These boxes originated in Japan, and they feature three to five compartments, each for a different course. A traditional Japanese Bento meal might contain portions of rice, greens, sushi, noodles, baked yams or squash, and a dessert. This concept works great for a variety of cuisines. An imaginatively prepared bento lunch offers unsurpassed appeal. There are all sorts of attractive bento boxes available for both small children and adults. Buy one with hinged snapping clasps to eliminate the chance that it will pop open during transport.

Today’s Thermos containers, with vacuum construction, are vastly better than their cheap plastic counterparts from a generation ago. They’ll keep soups piping hot and drinks nicely chilled. Given that they can stand up to daily use for many years, why not invest in a good one? A Thermos will reduce packaging waste, since they allow you to avoid single-serving aseptic juice or soy milk boxes.

Special Vegan School Lunch Ideas

The lunch ideas we’ve reviewed so far are deliberately easy, but if you have the time you can certainly get more creative.

If you want to step up your school lunch game, the books to get are Jennifer McCann’s, Vegan Lunch Box and its follow-up, Vegan Lunch Box Around the World. Note that many of the lunches she makes require an hour or more of prep time. So these books are likely too ambitious for everyday use. But McCann nevertheless offer countless terrific ideas, and many suggested meal items take just minutes to prepare.

You can also get new lunch ideas from Dreena Burton’s kid-tested cookbook, Plant-Powered Families

It Keeps Getting Easier

Over time, you’ll undoubtedly discover new opportunities for your child’s lunch. Much of your success will be determined by paying attention to the foods he or she enjoys at breakfast and dinner. And of course, learning the basics about nutrition is an important part of responsible parenting—probably the best introduction to the subject is Jack Norris and Virginia Messina’s excellent text, Vegan for Life.

For further reading: please see our vegan nutrition page and our vegan food coverage.
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