Vegan School Lunches

Few public school cafeterias are vegan-friendly, so here's how to pack a delicious and healthful vegan lunch for your child.
Last Updated: December 19, 2015

For decades, the National School Lunch Program has enabled America’s meat and dairy interests to unload massive amounts of inventory to the USDA at guaranteed prices. The system is seemingly designed to benefit agribusiness at the expense of children’s health, and generations of American children have choked down chicken nuggets, hamburgers, and milk—all purchased by school systems at a steep discount thanks to heavy USDA subsidies. Jamie Oliver and Ann Cooper have both done incredible work to bring public attention to this issue. The reality show Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, which lasted two seasons, is excellent viewing for parents and activists who want to improve their local school cafeteria offerings. Ann Cooper’s book Lunch Lessons is probably the most influential book to cover the tactics of winning school lunch reform.

While reform is urgently needed, it has been very slow to happen, especially in public schools (which are locked into complying with USDA regulations to a degree that private schools are not.) The offerings at public school cafeterias today are somewhat healthier than they were in past decades, but chances are you won’t be impressed by what’s on the menu. Nutrition regulations, as well as economic incentives, make it difficult for school cafeterias to reduce or eliminate the meat and dairy products served to children.

It can take years of activism to improve just one school district’s offerings, so parents who care about the healthfulness of what their kids are eating at school typically rely on packed lunches.

Packing it in

It’s super easy to send your child to school with a tasty and nutritious vegan lunch. That’s largely because a traditional brown bag lunch is surprisingly vegan-friendly.

Because of spoilage concerns, processed meats would be the only sort of meat to pack in a school lunch. But these meats are dreadfully unhealthy and have been implicated in greater risk of cancer as well as childhood leukemia. Egg products likewise pose spoilage risks when kept at room temperature, 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 some 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.

Chances are slim that your child’s cafeteria will sell soy milk, but single-serving containers are widely available. In fact you can buy eighteen-packs of organic Silk-brand soymilk directly from Amazon.com.

Assembling a Great Lunch

As meals go, school lunches are as quick and easy as they come. You can easily prepare and pack a good lunch in under ten minutes. Here are some basic ideas for what to include:

  • Entree: It makes sense to either go with a sandwich or with crackers and some kind of hummus or cheesy spread. Choose whole-grain bread instead of white for better nutrition. For a change of pace, make a wrap with a whole grain tortilla. Avoid peanut butter and other nut butters, as well as cheeses made with nuts, since these are forbidden at many schools due to precautions over allergies. Use a small plastic container for vegan mayonnaise, mustard, or other spreads that would make a sandwich soggy.
  • Salad. You can find dressing in single serving packs, or better yet (and cheaper by far) just pour some dressing into tiny reusable plastic container. Remember that green leaf, spinach, or romain is much more nutritious than iceberg lettuce.
  • Fruit: A small cluster of grapes, an apple, or an orange are easy items to add that are generally in season.
  • Soups or Chilis: Great for a Thermos to warm your child up on cold winter days. Keep in mind that most soups are extremely high in sodium, so it may be wisest to pack soup only occasionally.
  • Drink: Opt for soymilk rather than juices, since most juices contain lots of sugar, no fiber, and fewer nutrients than you would expect. Also keep in mind that soymilk is far more nutritious than most other vegan milks. If you’re sending your child off with a piece of fruit, there’s no need to also pack in juice. Filtered water put into a reusable bottle will also be appreciated, since it’ll likely taste better than what comes out of drinking fountains.
  • Dried Fruits and 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. Dried bananas or mangoes are great winter options for when it’s tough to find fresh fruit—check the ingredients to avoid sulfites and other preservatives.
  • 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

These are just basic ideas, and it’s easy to get more creative. If you want to to explore further, the book to get is Vegan Lunch Box (or its sequel: Vegan Lunch Box Around the World) by Jennifer McCann. Note that many of the lunches Jennifer makes would take a good hour or more of prep time, so this is probably not a practical book for everyday use. But she offers plenty of fantastic ideas for lunch items that can be prepared in minutes.

Bags and Boxes

Not so long ago, most kids were sent off to school with either a brown paper bag or a steel lunch box. Today there are many more options, and metal lunch boxes have fallen out of fashion in favor of “soft” lunch boxes that are lighter and made from materials that provide better insulation.

One newly-popular school lunch trend is a plastic bento box. These boxes originated in Japan, and they contain 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, and when prepared imaginatively a bento lunch offers unsurpassed appeal.

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 icy cold. Given that they can be used daily for years on end, it makes sense to invest in a good one. On days when soup’s not on the menu, they’ll enable you to cut down on waste by using soy milk from half-gallon cartons rather than single-serving aseptic juice boxes.

It Keeps Getting Easier

Over time, you’ll undoubtledly discover that just by keeping your eyes open, you’ll spot delicious new opportunities for your child’s lunch. A lot of your success will be determined by paying attention to the foods he or she likes when you eat together. And of course, learning the basics about nutrition is an important part of being a parent—probably the best introduction to the subject is Jack Norris and Virginia Messina’s excellent text, Vegan for Life. You also may enjoy and get new lunch ideas from Dreena Burton’s kid-tested cookbook, Plant-Powered Families.