In the Kitchen with Kirkman®: How to Pack a Healthy Back-to-School Lunch

Nora Tarte


By Nora Tarte
Contributing Writer
Kirkman Group, Inc. 

Children who are on the autism spectrum commonly have dietary restrictions that stop them from eating many of the foods found in cafeterias – think pizza, French fries and potato chips. So, before you rejoice that school is starting up again and revel in the free time you may now have during the day, take these steps to prep your student for success.

Packing a nutritious, allergy-free lunch is one of the most important pieces of the puzzle for school preparation in a family with a child that has autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Gluten-free bread, veggies sans genetically modified organisms (GMOs)  and dairy alternatives are just the starting point for many children with ASD as they often experience biomedical issues in addition to the other components of their condition. In this article, we will discuss some easy and creative options for packing a healthful lunch that won’t upset your child’s digestion or his/her day.

First, let’s start with some tips.

  1. Engage anticipation. Choose a mixture of your child’s favorite foods and items that are healthful and filling. Giving your child something to look forward to in his/her lunch may curb the blandness of some of the more basic items.
  2. Think FUN. Lunch doesn’t have to be boring; there are plenty of ways to inject a little imagination into the meal. Use bento boxes to separate items and create color blocks of food. Or cut and arrange snacks to make a silly face or a favorite animal. It will create a nice surprise for your child and can become an exciting lunchtime tradition.
  3. Be positive. Instead of talking about all of the foods your child CAN’T eat, focus on the tasty treats he/she CAN have. A simple change in language can make the lunchtime experience easier as the child delves into a lunchbox full of turkey sandwiches on gluten-free bread and mixed fruit without noticing the lack of allergy-inducing snacks that may be tasty, but harmful.
  4. Mix it up. Create a list of all of the lunchtime foods your child CAN eat (and that will keep well in a lunch pail). Make sure to do something different every day, and ask your child what foods from the list he/she wants to eat. Kids with ASD deserve variety too – even if they have lunchtime limits.
  5.  Share empathy. Talk to your child about the options available in the school cafeteria. One of the best parts of middle school and beyond is that children get to make their own choices about what to eat for lunch when they purchase items from the cafeteria. While a complete meal may be out of the question, try giving your child a few dollars to buy an item you’ve agreed in advance won’t cause any problems. This will help your child to not feel left out and make him/her less likely to take food from friends that could be riddled with allergens.

Now lets look at some recipes for lunchtime dining in the cafeteria:

You can make a pasta salad the night before school for a healthy lunchtime snack. Pasta salads are perfect because they don’t result in soggy vegetables or need to be reheated! Try the following recipe adapted from

Classic Creamy Macaroni Salad

Serves 4-6

Ingredients –

  • 8 oz. gluten-free elbow macaroni pasta
  • ½ cup + 2 tbsp. soy-free vegan mayonnaise
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced or crushed
  • 1 tsp. sugar (or use Kirkman’s No Sugar – Sugar Substitute)
  • 1 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. Dijon mustard
  • 2 tbsp. gluten-free sweet relish
  • 2 tbsp. plain rice milk (or use Vance’s™ DariFree™ Original Flavor)
  • ½ cup minced celery
  • ½ cup minced red bell pepper
  • 2 tbsp. minced yellow onion
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper
  • Curly parsley

Directions –

  1. Cook pasta in salted water until tender (do not stop at al dente). Drain but don’t rinse. Spread in a single layer on a baking tray to let cool and dry.
  2. Combine mayonnaise, garlic, sugar, vinegar, mustard and relish in a medium bowl. Whisk in milk until smooth.
  3. Toss pasta in a large bowl with celery, bell pepper and onion. Sprinkle with salt and freshly ground pepper. Add dressing, and stir gently to coat.
  4. To let flavors meld, cover pasta tightly and chill in refrigerator for one hour.
  5. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Serve garnished with fresh parsley.

Give your child a special treat by including an allergy-friendly, gluten-free chocolate chip cookie in his/her lunch. The following recipe was adapted from

Soft & Chewy Gluten-Free Chocolate Chip Cookies

Serves 24 – You can send some for the whole class!

Ingredients - 

  • ½ cup (1 stick) butter at room temperature (or margarine for dairy allergies)
  • ¼ cup granulated sugar (or use Kirkman’s No Sugar – Sugar Substitute)
  • ½ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 large egg (or an egg substitute when necessary)
  • 1 cup gluten-free flour blend
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. baking powder
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 cup Paskesz Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Chips (available from Kirkman®)

Directions -

  1. Using a mixer, cream butter and sugars (or substitutes) in a large mixing bowl.
  2. Add egg (or substitutes) and vanilla, and beat again until well combined, scraping sides of bowl as needed.
  3. Add remaining powdered ingredients. It won’t be so thick that you can’t continue mixing it, but it should appear “doughy.”
  4. Stir in chocolate chips, cover and refrigerate overnight or for at least 4-6 hours until thoroughly chilled. You should be able to roll the dough into balls before baking.
  5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  6. Once chilled, scoop out rounded tablespoon amounts of dough, roll them into balls and place them 2 inches apart on a baking sheet.
  7. Bake for 8-10 minutes or until the edges are just slightly golden brown. Remove from oven and let rest on the pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a cooling rack. Store leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to several days. Freeze for longer-term storage.

Between homework, clubs, medical appointments and the rest of the family’s schedule, it’s not realistic to cook something special for every lunch. For a simpler alternative, put together a sampling of fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses and other healthful snacks to get your child through the day. Check out’s article on healthy bento box lunches for ideas.

Don’t forget to visit Kirkman’s Pinterest page for more recipes and tips.

Have a great school year and Happy Lunching!


This entry was posted in Allergies & Allergens, Gluten Free / Casein Free, Special Needs. Bookmark the permalink.

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