When considering Menu Planning for Special Diets, the importance of accommodating allergens cannot be underestimated. After all, one out of 13 students have a life threatening allergy (about two in every classroom), which is no small amount considering nearly 26 million school lunches are served daily ( We wanted to provide you with ways to fortify your operations, promote safety and prevent cross contact, and build free from allergen menus. This is especially helpful information if you’re willing to see how technology is used as a school’s best line of defense in terms of keeping students safe while eating.  

A Background on Food Allergies 

A food allergy is an adverse immune system reaction that occurs soon after exposure to a certain food. In the U.S., the eight most common food allergens are milk, egg, peanut, tree nuts, soy, wheat, fish and shellfish ( It’s critical to recognize the symptoms and how they may be communicated. 

Symptoms may include: 

  • Swollen lips, tongue, or eyes
  • Itchiness, rash, or hives
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Congestion, hoarse voice, or trouble swallowing
  • Wheezing or difficulty breathing; dizziness, fainting, or loss of consciousness 
  • Mood change or confusion 

Children may communicate symptoms:

  • My tongue/mouth is tingling/burning
  • Something is poking my tongue
  • My mouth feels funny
  • My tongue feels like there is hair on it
  • There is a frog/something stuck in my throat
  • My tongue feels full or heavy
  • My lips feel tight
  • My throat feels thick
  • It feels like there are bugs in there (itchy ears)
  • It feels like a bump on the back of my tongue or throat

Actionable Steps on Ensuring Safety 

If you’d like more information on food allergies in schools, review the CDC’s toolkit. Now that a bit of background has been established, where to actually start to ensure safety in your meal program? First, see if your school has a ‘care team’ (a task force may go by different names). The objective is to make sure there is a district policy surrounding allergens and that they are enforced. This team may meet with families who can guide you in what accommodations they need for their child(ren). Once the needs are identified and a protocol is established, it’s time to start training your staff on food allergen safety, implement and monitor the procedures. 

How Technology Can Save You Time and Hassle

Easier said than done, right? Well, a great way to get a system going is by simplifying it with technology. To keep track of all the moving pieces of a nutrition operation, we not only want you to have what you need, but students as well so they can take initiative on staying safe.

Benefits for Families: For example, students would benefit from being able to see menus online or in an app, receiving notifications and updates about their meals, and having a place to store documents about their needs. Families can research your meals, filtering by allergens, flag allergens for their child(ren), and even interact with individual meals or grab and go items. 

Benefits for Your Team: Technology also helps you fortify your operations by leaving a digital trail to follow. You can ‘follow the food’ by having an easy way to create and track your ingredients, recipes, menu planning, labels for your menus, and even your signage options for full transparency about your menus.  

Technology can also help prevent cross contact. For example, in PrimeroEdge, you can add allergen flags, even to custom allergens you’ve added in, to ingredients which link back to your recipes and menus. Reports can be pulled to assess menus for allergens. It’s also possible to use that data to build core allergen-free menus. In preparing those allergen-safe menus, a good practice is to provide an allergen-safe list to families, asking them to highlight foods. A great practice would be providing an allergen-safe monthly menu with daily choices. Having meal ideas on hand with common in-stock ingredients and pairing it with a visual example of a menu is a great reference for your team and families. 

In preparing allergen-safe menus and meals and keeping families informed, you also have to consider making food substitutions. Here are some best practice ideas to make sure you always catch when a substitution needs to be made:

  • Review menu daily for each meal
  • Pull standardized recipes
    • Review ingredient labels every time food used
  • Prepare allergen-safe foods first 
  • Separate allergen-safe foods
    • Label and date 
    • Keep cold or warm until ready to serve

Remember when we mentioned tech and reports can help with simple signage? Well, in PrimeroEdge menu signage is easily generated from your Menu Planning System. You can print your recipes to include allergens, label individual meals, and even label grab and go items. 

This was a lot of information to digest, but PrimerEdge wants you to know all the possibilities that assist your menu planing for special diets. Let your school nutrition software make your life easier when it comes to preparing for dietary needs and maximize communications! Do you have any other tips or best practices? Share them with us on social media!

All of this great information has been gathered by Molly Platts, a Registered Dietitian and Sales Engineer Manager at PrimeroEdge. She has been speaking about this topic at conferences all over the country, using her knowledge from 10 years of experience in School Nutrition.