Tuesday, January 10, 2017

40+ Vegan & Nut-Free School Lunch & Snack Ideas for Kids (& Big Kids Too!)

The worst part of sending kids back to school after vacation is packing daily school lunches again. Preparing lunches the night before seems like a wise plan, but by the time dinner is made, dishes are washed and kids are wrangled into the bath, who among us feels like packing up lunches? Once morning comes, packing lunches is a mad rush and sometimes nutrition falls by the wayside in favour of convenient, portable and packaged snacks.

During the last couple of days of Christmas vacation, my daughter talked some more about embracing a vegan lifestyle. She has been vegetarian her whole life, but struggles with giving up foods like pizza, conventional chocolate bars and macaroni and cheese. (Her brother and her dad eat cheese, while I do not.) I'm not one to push her into a fully vegan diet, but most of our meals and snacks are vegan anyway and she would prefer a completely animal-friendly diet. So we sat down to plan for vegan lunches and snacks. I thought what came out of our brainstorming might be helpful to some of you. Even if you have no plans to become vegan, these ideas will work for healthy, everyday meals and snacks on the run, for school or work.

Our local elementary schools require nut-free lunches for the safety of students with nut allergies. That makes preparing vegan lunches and snacks slightly more complicated, but with some care and thought and grocery planning, it can be done easily enough.

At 12 years old, my daughter is on her way to becoming a proficient baker. It's nice that I can hand over some of the baking responsibilities to her. Our goal for this year is to spend a few hours on Sundays baking snacks and desserts and putting together salads and lunch entrees such as soups and chili. I generally only keep leftover meals in the fridge for three days, so we will freeze individual portions for Thursdays and Fridays.

Vegan & Nut-free School Lunch & Snack Ideas: 

Homemade Meals

Hot Items (to bring in a thermos or in a glass container for reheating if you have access to a microwave)

In Lunch Bag (with ice pack)

  • chickpea salad  - canned or cooked chickpeas with diced tomatoes and peppers in an oil and vinegar dressing
  • rice crackers and hummus - I like this Oh She Glows hummus recipe
  • quinoa salad
  • potato salad
  • sushi - how about Spicy Crunchy Mango Sushi Rolls?
  • parfait - assemble a nutritious parfait with non-dairy yogurt - try Berry & Hemp Heart Parfait
  • mason jar salads (see ideas below)

Homemade Snacks

Portion these snacks out in small containers for each day. Freeze them for later in the week.

Store-Bought Convenience Items:

*Consult labels. May contain traces of milk, peanuts, wheat, and/or tree nuts. Check with your school to see if "may contain" is acceptable under the nut-free policy. Continue to check all labels on store-bought items because ingredients may change.

Mason Jar Salads

The idea with mason jar salads is not just to make your salads look pretty. The jar helps to keep your items separate and well preserved until it's time to mix it all up in a bowl. Because my daughter can't easily bring a bowl to school, we leave a bit of open space at the top of the jar so she can eat straight from the jar. Normally you would start with dressing at the bottom of the jar (so it doesn't wet the salad items while in your lunch bag) but we package her dressing in a separate container. With a school knapsack to carry I figure it's just too hard to keep the mason jar upright.

Put wetter and heavier items in the jar first so they don't crush more fragile items like your salad greens.

Ideas for items to include in your mason jar salad:

  • chickpeas
  • kidney beans
  • cucumber slices
  • cooked quinoa or rice
  • grated or chopped carrots
  • chopped broccoli
  • cherry tomatoes
  • lightly cooked green beans
  • sesame noodles
  • zucchini noodles
  • fresh blueberries
  • dried cranberries
  • lettuce
  • sunflower seeds
  • hemp hearts
  • chia seeds
  • pumpkin seeds

What to Drink

We give the kids lots of water in reusable bottles. We rarely pack juice because I don't think juice is an effective way to consume calories - too much sugar without the beneficial fiber of fruit.

Breakfast On The Run

Smoothies and smoothie bowls are great for busy mornings. My daughter often takes a smoothie in a travel cup with a straw to drink on the school bus. You could also take along a smoothie bowl in one of those dishes with a built-in ice pack. Package granola and other toppings like hemp hearts and coconut separately. Try these recipes (prepared without optional nuts or nut butter if it will be taken to school):

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40+ ideas for vegan and nut-free school lunches and snacks - great for work too!

Picky Eaters

We have gone through many stages with both of our kids when it comes to healthy eating. My daughter was very picky at certain points in time. Like any person, she still has particular preferences, but she's now more open-minded and willing to try things. She definitely has a sweet tooth, but I try to ensure she fills up on healthy foods for main meals.

My son is surrounded by teens who buy lunches at the cafeteria or pack things like pizza pops. He used to be a good eater at various other stages. When he was a toddler, he was obsessed with fruit. (He'd sleep with a clementine clutched in his little hand.) Now, at 14, it's more challenging. Ages and stages, right? But there are healthier options he likes - like salads. Even if you just had salad as a veggie every day, that would be a good start. Goal for me - try to pack more salads for him. But not in a mason jar. That's just embarrassing for a teen boy!

Ride the waves is I guess what I'm saying. Offer more of the healthy things they love. My daughter has one friend who really only likes lightly cooked carrots as a vegetable. So that's what she gets as a veggie when she comes over. Her preferences are bound to change. And get the kids involved with meal preparation (and gardening if you have a garden).

Isn't This A Lot of Work?

Preparing lunches and snacks in advance can seem like a lot of work, but it's pretty important. In the new year, we often think about living with more intention and eating more healthfully. This kind of practice will hopefully continue to grow your kids' palates so they will want to incorporate more healthy foods when they are eventually out on their own. And I bet you'll end up eating healthier too!

If you haven't done any preparation and you're in a hurry, buy some hummus and crackers, cut up an apple (two kids in braces over here) and douse it with some store-bought lemon juice to keep it from browning. Add a packaged Clif bar or purchased cookie for snack time. Or pack a sandwich made with hummus and vegan ham slices. (We use Yves Veggie Cuisine Deli Ham Slices.)

Do you have any ideas for vegan lunches and snacks?

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  1. Hi Joann,

    Actually these are great food ideas for a lot of people! Thanks for sharing.

    1. I hope non-vegan people will benefit from these ideas too. :) Thanks Gabriela!

  2. they're great ideas, I'm so tired of tv ads for stuff to put in lunch boxes which doctors and dietitians tell you to stay away from (especially kids)-- and I don't even watch tv much!

    1. Thank you! Me too - so much pure crap marketed to kids. It's really a shame.

  3. As part of a double-shiftworking tag-team I found that advance prep saves time, just the pulling-out-and-putting-away of stuff done once a week instead of daily, adds up!

    As parent of a picky eater [she ate only muffins for school lunches for two years] I offer a glimmer of hope. When she turned twelve, as if a switch was flipped, she became an adventurous eater.

    During the Muffin Years, I practiced all kinds of parental trickery and hid as much good stuff in the muffins as I could. Grated carrots went undetected to this day. Almost any kind of mashed fruit could be added as well as mashed or riced cauliflower or zucchini.

    I learned that a mini-chocolate chip pressed point-down into the top of the muffin qualified it as a "Chocolate Muffin". [I got off easy on that one]

    Applesauce is a great substitute for butter/margarine/fat in muffins and quick breads.

    Many grains can be added or substituted for part of the flour, Red River Cereal [may be a prairie thing] added a lovely crunch and nutty flavour sans nuts.

    We are not strict vegan/vegetarian, but ... goals.

    I just realized one huge advantage to living with picky eaters. They don't succumb to advertising or marketing ploys. YaY! No clamouring for lunchables.

    1. My daughter changed a lot around 12 too (the age she is now). I love your one chocolate chip idea - so funny! I think my girl would comment on that though. haha. Thanks for sharing your wonderful ideas. And I adored Red River Cereal as a kid. I need to get some! I never thought to put in a recipe. I grew up in Ontario and my parents are from Nova Scotia so I'm not sure where the Red River thing comes from. So great that you have a goal of vegetarian eating. I'm happy if people try to do it more often that not. :) Yeah my kids are aware they will never have lunchables. hehe

  4. I can't believe I'm just hearing about SUNFLOWER butter! OMG thank you so much for these ideas! My son has so many allergies, including nuts and tree nuts and he's also SUPER picky so transitioning to vegan has not been an easy journey. Especially packing school lunch. Thank you so much!

    1. I hope the sunflower butter works out for you! Packing school lunches is a challenge for sure. Good luck!