Back-to-School with Peanuts

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I’ve consulted with the National Peanut Board and the Peanut Institute several times over the past decade. It is a natural partnership for several reasons: (1) I love peanuts and peanut butter; (2) My two children might not have grown into strong, healthy adults without peanut butter; and (3) Both organizations base all of their materials and recommendations on the most recent science. And now I have a fourth reason: My grandson Milo, now almost sixteen months old is getting to explore the wide world of delicious, nutritious foods – and I want to make certain that he experiences new foods safely and joyfully.

The great news for new parents is that the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has updated guidelines for infants at different risk levels for developing of peanut allergies. The 2017 Addendum Guidelines, based on a landmark study, are designed for use by healthcare providers and parents. They suggest that the early introduction of peanut-containing foods (around four to six months of age) can lead to a major reduction in the development of peanut allergies. I’m grateful that my grandson Milo has happily been enjoying peanut butter “puffs” for over eight months.

I’m always disappointed when I learn that a school district has banned peanuts, peanut butter and peanut-containing foods and claims to be “peanut-free.” While I understand any parent’s desire to keep their children safe, I support realistic, effective policies that prevent peanut-allergic reactions and allow the 98 percent of children without these allergies to enjoy all delicious, nutritious, affordable food options. In my professional opinion, students with and without allergies are best served by policies that are comprehensive and evidence-based. Rather than complete bans – which can be unenforceable – I favor an “allergen aware” approach to serving potentially problematic foods.

The really important reason to allow peanuts and peanut butter in schools is their natural versatility in creating nutritious dishes that students love to eat for school breakfast, lunch, snacks and supper. The recipes at PeanutsinSchools.org are excellent examples of items that appeal to kids – and help school nutrition pros plan meals that meet nutrition standards without breaking their budgets. Chocolate-Peanut Butter-Banana Smoothies, Peanut Butter Vanilla Yogurt Dip and African Peanut Stew (a tasty, creamy option for vegetarian and vegan customers) are perfect for back-to-school menu innovations. These recipes, created by HealthySchoolRecipes.com, come complete with crediting information and nutrition details.

So what can a school district do? Start a science-based discussion about food allergies that includes all interested parties – parents, students, teachers, and administrators as well as school nurses, medical advisors, and, of course, school nutrition staff. A school wellness committee or council can be an effective place to begin the conversation – about existing policies or about possible changes.

Here are five steps that make sense for all students – and are based on the latest evidence:

  1. Use the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Voluntary Guidelines for Managing Food Allergies in Schools and Early Care and Education Programs as a template for policies. Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE), the National Association of School Nurses and other groups collaborated with the CDC to develop the best guidelines possible. 
  2. Educate. Educate. Educate. Keeping food-allergic students safe at school is a shared responsibility among all adults who provide care, services or oversight. This means that bus drivers, foodservice staff, teachers, aides, paraprofessionals, and after school personnel should all know the signs of an allergic reactions and what to do for an individual child.
  3. Be prepared in the event of a reaction. Even with good policies and careful procedures, reactions can and do happen. For any food allergy, children need an emergency anaphylaxis plan, access to necessary medications, and adults who know how to respond. Friends and classmates can also be taught to recognize the signs of a reaction to allergenic foods.
  4. Consider whether allergen safe tables are a good option for your school. These tables have been shown to reduce epinephrine use in a 2017 study. I often eat at allergen-free tables when visiting school cafeterias – and have been impressed with the level of students’ knowledge and the caring they show for their friends. (Bartnikas L., H. M. 2017, Impact of school peanut-free policies on epinephrine administration. J Allergy Clin Immunol, 467-473)
  5. Let parents and caretakers know that your school nutrition program takes all food allergies seriously. Meet with concerned families as appropriate and share your procedures for reviewing new products, labeling menu items with potential allergens, and supporting safe celebrations. Need more facts about peanut allergies? Find everything you need at Managing Peanut Allergies.

Peanut Butter in School Meals (Sponsor: National Peanut Board)

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Kids love the great taste of peanut butter, and school nutrition professionals love the protein and other key nutrients of this American staple. Some schools, however, struggle with managing peanut products due to concerns about food allergies. Others are unsure of how to safe use peanut butter as an ingredient in meals beyond the typical PB&J. Here are answers to top questions about peanut products in school from Chef Garrett Berdan, RDN, and Dayle Hayes, MS, RD.

When it comes to managing food allergies, what resources do you recommend for school nutrition pros?

Garrett: Two main resources that I recommend are the Institute for Child Nutrition’s training on food allergy management, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention Food Allergies in Schools Toolkit. Also, resources that are available linked from PeanutAllergyFacts.org, including training videos for school nutrition professionals.

How can school nutrition pros leverage the culinary versatility of peanuts and peanut butter to help improve school meals?

Garrett: If we can look at it as a protein component to serve on the side with some dippables, that’s always a fun thing for especially younger kids to enjoy. That could be any variety of fruits for dipping into peanut butter. From apples and pears and banana, but also think of peanut butter as a dip for veggies like carrots and celery, and even bell pepper strips.

The flavor of peanuts is really on trend now in cuisine that we see outside of schools. Certainly, with Southeast Asian flavor profiles, peanuts and peanut sauce are an important flavor aspect of those cuisines. Those can be easily integrated onto a school menu with dishes like noodles with a peanut sauce, or maybe a chilled veggie and noodle salad. That definitely takes things beyond the peanut butter and jelly.

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Peanut Sauce with Noodles: Recipe video available at goo.gl/qx3aJn

What is your favorite preparation for peanut butter being used in school meals?

Dayle: The thing that I’m most excited about is what people are calling power packs or grab and go meals. The ones I’ve seen often include an individual container of peanut butter along with pita bread, pita chips, or whole grain crackers. Then some sliced apples, maybe some baby carrots or celery sticks, and often an added protein source like a cheese stick.

How does peanut butter help lower costs for school nutrition programs?

Dayle: School nutrition programs are very limited in terms of overall food costs and often pennies per serving can make a difference in balancing budgets. For consumers and foodservice channels, peanuts and peanut butter are often always listed as one of the least expensive protein sources. It compares so favorably with the cost of other proteins. When you reduce the cost of the meat or the meat alternate in the “center of the tray,” then you have more food dollars for fresh produce and other local items. Farm to School is one of the fastest growing areas of school nutrition programs and any money that directors have to spend in purchasing local products works to their benefit.

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What nutritional benefits do peanuts and peanut butter provide for school aged children?

Dayle: Protein is one of the most obvious nutritional benefits of peanuts and peanut butter for children. The unsaturated fat plus the protein provides satiety in a meal or snack. Peanut products can offer an extended source of energy for children’s physical activity and for their brain activity too.

In addition to protein, there are three other nutrients that I always think about in terms of school-age children. One is potassium. Potassium is one of the nutrients of concern that health experts know we’re not getting enough of for our everyday needs, and peanut butter has potassium in it. In fact, one serving (one ounce) of peanuts provides 6 percent of the daily value and one serving (2 Tablespoons) of peanut butter provides 5 percent of the daily value. Also, peanut butter pairs well with some other kid-friendly, high potassium foods like apples and celery.

Peanuts and peanut butter are also a source of fiber as well. One serving of peanuts contain 10 percent of the daily value and one serving of peanut butter has 8 percent of the daily value. Because most of the meat alternate foods do not have any fiber in them, this combination of protein, potassium, and fiber is great.

The other nutrient in peanuts and peanut butter I want to mention is iron, because in the recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the Scientific Advisory Committee called out iron as a nutrient of concern for girls and young women. One serving of peanuts provides 7 percent of the daily value and one serving of peanut butter provides 3 percent of the daily value. Any time we can find a source of iron that students like to eat it’s a win-win situation in terms of their nutrition.

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Preparing Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwiches in School Foodservice: Video at goo.gl/kuNiIk