Those approved snack lists your kids bring home from pre-school and grade-school can be real head-scratchers: Packaged snack crackers are okay but sliced fruit isn't? Sugary store-bought donuts are okay, but homemade muffins aren't?
To some parents, these lists feel limiting. Maybe you grew up with parents bringing homemade cupcakes to school for birthdays and you want the same for your kids. To others, these lists seem downright unhealthy. If you're trying to feed your kids fewer packaged snacks, the processed crackers and goodies that dominate those lists can make you cringe.
But there are good reasons for those snacks lists. Roughly two kids in every single classroom have food allergies, some of them life-threatening. Food allergies are on the rise among children, and 40 percent of kids who have them are allergic to more than one food. Other children may have celiac disease, which happens when the body can't digest a protein in wheat. Approved snack lists are designed to keep all those kids safe—and included.
"Lists are provided to give class parents an idea for snacks to help eliminate the frustration of shopping for various allergies," says Sonya North, founder of SnackRoots, a site where you can create allergen-safe snack lists for class parties, sports games, scout troop meetings, and other gatherings. "It can be very time-consuming for parents not affected by allergies to go to the store and find safe cookies or granola bars. Lists also give allergy, celiac, and diabetic parents peace of mind that their child will be safe in the classroom."
These lists typically give very specific brands for a reason too: Some name brands consistently use the same recipes, but store brand or generic versions may contain the allergens or change their recipes, explains North. It's also easier for parents to find certain name brands at grocery stores.
So why do some of these lists not include fruit? Some schools will allow whole fruit (like clementines or bananas) but cut fruit is a no-no because of the risk of cross-contamination, which is when one food comes into contact with another via a knife, cutting board, or dish for instance. "My daughter had an allergic reaction to fruit during a Valentine's party because the mother preparing the fruit did not use clean cutting boards and knives when preparing it," says North.
Homemade items are problematic in general, not only because of cross-contact risk but also because parents may not accurately report all of the ingredients. Store-bought items that have ingredient lists and allergen statements take the guesswork out of it.
And sure, the allergic child could simply enjoy his own safe food item while the rest of the class has theirs—but that doesn't exactly teach inclusion and empathy. "Kids with food allergies have to be excluded from eating so often—at birthday parties, holidays, impromptu snacks, or trips to the ice cream shop. For class parties, it's our job to show all of our kids that it's kind and the right thing to do to include all of their classmates," says North. "In my experience, children are more than happy and often enthusiastic about keeping their classmates safe from allergens—their parents are the only ones getting frustrated."
If the snack lists rub you the wrong way, you could always approach the teacher and other parents about nixing snacks altogether. Personally, after helping to coordinate many class parties over the years, I've found that the food rarely interests kids. They're more excited about the games, activities, and chance to let loose. In my experience (and North's) it's actually the parents who are usually opposed to eliminating the snack.
Another option: Put it into perspective. Daily pre-school snacks are one thing. But there are usually only two or three class parties a year in grade school. "I always chuckle when parents get bent out of shape about whether snacks at classroom celebrations are healthy. I wish I had the luxury of that problem!" says North. "My primary concern is keeping my children alive, and if that means they'll eat a treat three times a year that isn't particularly healthy, that can be shared with the whole class, and won't send them to the emergency room—to me that is worth it!"
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a Contributing Editor for Parents magazine and a registered dietitian who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a no-judgements zone about feeding a family. She is the author of The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids and Cooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide. You can follow her on Facebook, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.