As kids prepare to head back to the classroom, many parents are already thinking about school lunches. The challenge: how to prepare a healthy lunch that kids will eat and, at the same time, adhere to their child’s school’s peanut and nut restrictions.

Peanut butter (and other peanut-containing products) are restricted from many elementary school classrooms because of the growing number of children with peanut allergies. Peanut allergies, now affecting 2.4 per cent of Canadian children, can cause life-threatening anaphylactic reactions.

Botanically, peanuts aren’t nuts; they belong to the legume family which includes beans – e.g., kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas (not green beans).

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School peanut restrictions typically include tree nuts, too. That means products including almonds, cashews, walnuts, hazelnuts and pistachios also can’t be packed in lunch boxes.

Because the proteins in peanuts are similar to those in tree nuts, people who are allergic to peanuts can also be allergic to tree nuts. However, people may be allergic to one or more tree nuts even if they don’t have a peanut allergy.

Nut-free butter alternatives

The good news: There are many nutrient-packed substitutes for nut butters that make tasty companions for sliced bread, celery sticks and apple slices. The following highlights five nut-free butters and their notable nutrients.

Sunflower seed butter. Made from dry-roasted sunflower seeds, this seed butter is a favourite of mine. It’s smooth, creamy and tastes similar to peanut butter.

Along with protein and heart-healthy monounsaturated fat, sunflower seed butter delivers a decent amount of vitamin B6, needed for brain and nerve function, and folate, a B vitamin used to make and repair DNA in cells.

It’s also an outstanding source of blood-sugar- and blood-pressure-regulating magnesium, providing 25 per cent of a days’ worth in two tablespoons. Sunflower seed butter also contains plenty of selenium (more than half a day’s worth), a mineral that fends off harmful free radicals and is needed for proper thyroid function.

Read labels carefully if you have nut-allergic family members. Brands made in facilities that manufacture other peanut and tree nut products must declare “may contain peanuts, tree nuts”.

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Per 2 tablespoons: 160 calories, 6 g protein, 2 g fibre, 100 mg magnesium, 33 mcg selenium

Pumpkin seed butter. Made from dry-roasted pumpkin seeds, this tasty butter leads the pack when it comes to protein, serving up more than any other nut-free or nut butter.

It also can’t be beat when it comes to magnesium, manganese (needed for healthy bones and connective tissue) and immune-enhancing zinc with two tablespoons serving up 70 per cent, 60 per cent and 25 per cent of a day’s worth, respectively.

Per 2 tablespoons: 160 calories, 9 g protein, 2 g fibre, 156 mg magnesium, 1.3 mg manganese, 2 mg zinc

Sesame seed butter (tahini). Made from dry-roasted sesame seeds, silky smooth tahini is a good source of protein, fibre, B vitamins, iron and zinc. Its claim to fame, however: calcium. A two-tablespoon serving supplies close to the amount found in one-half cup of milk. Note: Sesame is associated with food allergies and allergic-type reactions.

Per 2 tablespoons: 180 calories, 5 g protein, 3 g fibre, 130 mg calcium

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Soy butter. Wowbutter, a widely available brand, is made from roasted soybeans and tastes similar to peanut butter. Unlike peanut butter, soy butter supplies a hefty amount of alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), an anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acid.

Commercial soy butters typically contain added sugar and soy oil. As with sesame, soy is associated with food allergies.

Per 2 tablespoons: 200 calories, 7 g protein, 2 g fibre, 4 g sugar, 1 g ALA (women need 1.1 g daily; men require 1.6 g)

Pea butter. Alberta-produced NoNuts Golden Peabutter is made from brown peas blended with canola oil, icing sugar, modified palm oil, mono- and diglycerides (stabilizers that prevent the oil from separating) and citric acid (a preservative).

While it is peanut-free, some schools have restricted Peabutter due to concerns it may be confused with peanut butter at the grocery store.

Per 2 tablespoons (Original): 180 calories, 4 g protein, 1 g fibre, 1 g sugar

Beyond the lunch box

There are plenty of ways to incorporate nutritious nut-free butters into your diet, allergic or not.

Stir them into oatmeal, blend into smoothies and protein shakes or whisk into a salad dressing. Thin with water and a little vinegar and drizzle over roasted and grilled vegetables.

Fold in a dash of cinnamon or cocoa powder and serve as a dip for sliced fruit. Stir in a little maple syrup and spread over pancakes and waffles.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan.