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Back to School Tips for Vegetarian Kids

By Sharon Palmer, RDN

School days are here, and it’s time for parents to get into the habit of packing lunchboxes and preparing after school snacks. While planning healthful lunches and snacks can be challenging for parents, it can be even more so for vegetarian or vegan families. It’s possible to create a nutritionally balanced diet for vegetarian and vegan kids, but the choices may be slightly more limited.

The following are several tips from Today’s Dietitian’s plant-based RD experts to help plant-based families find interesting, wholesome lunch and snack items to fuel healthful eating habits all year long:

1. The magic formula. Plan a healthful lunch that includes a balance of proteins (plants for vegans; dairy or eggs may be included for vegetarians) + whole grains + vegetables + fruits + healthful fats. This combination will meet kids’ nutritional needs, help them focus on school and perform in sports, and keep them feeling satisfied for hours.

2. Build a better sandwich. Get creative when it comes to bread fillings with the following ideas:

  • cashew cream: Soak cashews and blend for a creamy, nutrient-rich spread;
  • avocado butter: Mash avocados and use as a spread;
  • hummus: Try a variety of flavors as a nutrient-rich spread;
  • nut and seed butters: “These are great for kids of all ages because they’re nutrient-dense, contain healthful fats, and are versatile and low cost,” says Matt Ruscigno, MPH, RD, a plant-based nutrition expert, and writer in Los Angeles. “Peanut and almond are popular, but now you can find a wide variety like cashew, walnut, and even nut-free sunflower butter.”;
  • pesto: Vegetarian pesto or vegan pesto makes an excellent spread;
  • baba ganoush: Parents can easily make this eggplant dip or spread—available at Mediterranean shops—at home by puréeing roasted eggplant with garlic and olive oil;
  • tempeh bacon, tofu-based meat alternatives: More flavors of vegan faux sandwich meats are available, which make delicious, protein-rich fillings;
  • baked tofu: Clients can find baked tofu in most supermarkets, or they can make it themselves by marinating sliced tofu and baking it for about 15 minutes;
  • fresh herbs: basil, oregano, cilantro, chives, and parsley;
  • greens: kale, cabbage, chard, arugula, and romaine;
  • roasted veggies: eggplant, zucchini, and butternut squash;
  • fresh onions, scallions, or leeks;
  • dried fruit: raisins, currants, cranberries;
  • spices: cinnamon, cumin, or turmeric; and
  • cheese (vegetarian or vegan): Ruscigno says there are several varieties of cheese alternatives available that make delicious sandwich fillings.

3. Beyond bread. Instead of bread, swaddle sandwich fillings with a whole grain pita, cornbread, flatbread, or wrap.

4. Pinwheels. “Cut from wraps, pinwheels are a favorite snack or portable meal for kids. Spread a large whole grain flour tortilla with nut butter, hummus, or any bean spread. Top with shredded carrots or raw spinach leaves. Roll the tortilla tightly and slice thinly into pinwheels,” says Ginny Messina, MS, RD, vegan nutrition expert and coauthor of Vegan for Life.

5. Super salads. Pack a large airtight container with favorite salad fixings, such as greens, beans, cottage cheese (for vegetarians), chopped veggies, fruit, nuts, herbs, and more—and then a vinaigrette or salad dressing in a separate container to add at the last second.

6. Leftover lunchables. Don’t forget the power of last night’s leftovers for lunch the following day. Soups, stews, chili, pasta, nut loaves, and casseroles are great warmed up or stored in a thermos.

7. Side of veggies. Pack a little baggie or container of fresh munchies, such as snow peas, edamame, cauliflower, carrots, and cherry tomatoes along with a small container of hummus, cashew cream, or nut/seed butter for a dip.

8. Trail mix. Plant-based expert Jack Norris, RD, suggests packing trail mix—store bought or custom mixed—as an excellent kids snack or lunchbox item.

9. Whole food nutrition bars. Norris suggests healthful nutrition bars, such as Peanut Butter Clif Bars, as a delicious kid-friendly snack or lunchbox item.

10. Fruity dessert. A whole piece of fruit—a banana, apple, peach, grapes, plum, or orange—is nature’s most perfect dessert, which even comes with its own packaging. Ruscigno suggests focusing on new varieties of seasonal fruit, such as Pink Lady or Honeycrisp apples, and even pairing fruit with favorite foods.

11. Treats are OK. Since vegetarian and vegan diets can be filled with much fiber, kids can get full too quickly and miss out on enough calories to meet their needs, Ruscigno says. It’s all right for children to have a few high-energy treats, such as oatmeal raisin cookies and corn chips. 

12. Pack enough food. “Active kids need more food. Be sure athletes are eating enough to fuel their workouts,” Ruscigno says.

13. Keep it on ice. Throw in an ice pack to keep lunches cool—and safe—until lunchtime.

Healthful, creative plant-based lunches and snacks for children are doable. So offer clients these practical tips to get them headed in the right direction.

— Sharon Palmer, RDN, is a plant-based nutrition expert, nutrition editor of Today’s Dietitian, and author of Plant-Powered for Life.

Recipe: Crunchy Cherry Sunflower Seed Wraps

Crunchy Cherry Sunflower Seed WrapsServes 2

2 8-in whole grain tortillas (or wraps)
2 T almond butter
2/3 cup microgreens or sprouts
2 T sunflower seeds
2 T raisins
2 T dried cherries

1. Spread almond butter evenly over each tortilla.
2. Top with microgreens, sunflower seeds, raisins, and dried cherries.
3. Tightly roll up each tortilla, and slice in half. Store in foil or plastic.

Nutrient Analysis per serving
Calories: 362; Fat: 17 g; Sat fat: 1 g; Total carbohydrates: 48 g; Protein: 9 g; Dietary fiber: 7 g

— Recipe and photo courtesy of Sharon Palmer, RDN, author of The Plant-Powered Diet.