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The Gluten-Free Lunchbox

by Heidi Trilling

gluten-free lunch

Can you tell that this lunch is gluten-free? Sandwich breads, deli meats, caramel popcorn, nachos, and chocolate chip cookies are only a few examples of delicious gluten-free items that look and taste just like "regular" foods. Photo: Heidi Trilling.

March, 2012 — Preparing yummy, well-balanced meals every day that kids will like can be a challenge.

Since school, camp, parties and other social gatherings usually center around food and treats, this means continual menu-planning.

But what if there are dietary concerns to consider, as well?

If you suspect that your child has a gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, rest assured — you are not alone. It is estimated that nearly 10 percent of the U.S. population has gluten issues, and that one in every 133 people has celiac disease, a complete intolerance of gluten.

Signs of gluten intolerance can be as direct as stomach upset, or as indirect as joint inflammation, headaches or behavioral change. It is best to settle the question by consulting a doctor and getting your child tested.

So, what is gluten, anyway? It’s a protein composite found in wheat and other grains such as barley, kamut, rye, spelt, and triticale — a hybrid of wheat and rye. Going gluten-free means completely eliminating these grains from your child’s meals.

“But it’s not just cutting breads out of your diet,” says Addi L., a mother of three gluten-free daughters, as she serves them gluten-free slices of pizza. “Gluten shows up in things you’d never associate with grains, like pasta sauce and soups and some meats from the deli … even licorice candy!”

What to do?

“I relied on web searches and books,” Addi L. continues. “100 Best Gluten-Free Recipes by Carol Fenster became my go-to book after my eldest was diagnosed. It explained everything, and made me aware of where gluten hides in foods. There are also websites like and and that are super helpful!”

gluten-free cookies

Who says decadent desserts can't be gluten-free? Gluten-free coconut ice cream, hazelnut wafers, chocolate and a side dish of biscotti, amaretti and mini-snickerdoodles satisfy the kid — and the sophisticate — in all of us. Photo: Heidi Trilling.

And there is more good news. A host of cookbooks, online resources and organizations offer information and support — and many grocery shops, supermarkets and restaurants provide an ever-widening variety of delicious gluten-free products.

“It is much easier now to find gluten-free stuff,” says Todd Brown, father of gluten-free twin sons. His grocery cart is loaded with loaves of bread, boxes of cereal, and various snacks like cookies and popcorn. All gluten-free. “When the boys were toddlers my wife and I had to make everything from scratch, and the prep time was hours. Our whole life seemed to be food prep! Now, they’re in third grade, and we can find virtually everything we need in the supermarkets and farmers markets. Making their lunches is a snap, now.”

Here are some tips for easy lunches that will make filling your child’s gluten-free lunchbox a snap, too.

Plan the week’s lunches ahead of time.

Involve your child in meal planning. Make a special calendar so your child can write out a different lunch menu for each day of the week. Monday: tacos. Tuesday: salad wraps. And so on. It will make things easier for you at the market when you know exactly what you need, and — depending on their ages — your children will learn the practical skills of planning and budgeting for meals.

Get the kids to help make lunch.

Wake everybody up 10 minutes earlier, or carve time out the night before, so your kids can help pack their own lunches. They may balk at first, but really encourage them to choose ingredients and stuff a taco full of veggies, or gluten-free meat or cheese. Have a conversation about the food groups, and why it’s important for them to have nutritious things to eat. It will not only teach them the practical skill of how to prepare food, it will teach them to take responsibility for their own health and wellness.

Mix it up a bit, with alternatives to the sandwich.

Variety is one of the keys to delighting your child’s gluten-free palate. Mix it up a bit. There are gluten-free breads for sandwiches, but a sandwich every day may get a little boring. Try using a taco. Or a gluten-free tortilla. Or wrapping rice and veggies in sheets of nori or rice paper rolls. Need to add some greens to your child’s diet? Swiss chard or collards make excellent wraps, too. Don’t forget dips: black bean, guacamole, hummus, and yogurt dips are great with gluten-free crackers, celery sticks, etc. Dream up some new dips. What about pureed sweet potato or artichokes? Find other gluten-free lunch ideas at, under “food allergies.”

gluten-free fish tacos

Gluten-free sandwich alternatives for your child's lunchbox include fish tacos or rice paper roll-ups with veggies. Benefits of a gluten-free diet include more fresh foods, which provide your child with more nutrients, more energy and better health. Go organic for even greater health benefits! Photo: Heidi Trilling.

Rosalia Rivas, mother of an exuberant first-grade boy with celiac, puts a bag of groceries in the trunk of her car. A box of gluten-free chocolate chip cookies peeks from the top. “When we first went to the doctor and she told us about the celiac, my son cried. But when he found out he could still have chocolate chip cookies, his mood totally changed. All the things that he ate, pre-diagnosis, he can still have because we just buy the gluten-free version.”

Any other tips?

Rivas smiles. “Don’t worry. It’s a shock at first, and you may feel overwhelmed. But just breathe and start Googling. I started with and, which are really good. It’ll be OK. Gluten-free is easier than you think.”

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