Let’s start by doing a bit of maths! Each school year has four, ten-week terms, and each week is 5 days. That’s 5 x 40 = 200 school lunches per year. Times it by 13 years = 2600 lunches that you have to pack during your child’s school career!
When we look at how we consume food across the day, 1/3-1/2 of our children’s nutrition is depending on what’s eaten during school time. Given that our children and adolescents are going through big periods of rapid growth and development during their school age years, it’s pretty vital that we pack them some healthy options.
But what does healthy mean?? As a nutritionist who focuses on children’s health, I’ve come to realise that it means different things for different people. Defining exactly what should and shouldn’t be in a healthy lunchbox will help you make some really nutritious lunchbox options for your children.
Let’s start by looking at the different categories of food and the options in each one.
- Fruit– Fruit is pretty self explanatory, however some people fall into the trap of thinking lots of dried fruit is a healthy option. It isn’t “not healthy”, but look out for fruit that has been dried with preservatives and avoid those ones. Watch the portion sizes of dried fruit as they are high in natural fruit sugars and too much at once aren’t a good thing, particularly for the bowels!! Gold standard is to choose a piece of fresh seasonal fruit that hasn’t been sprayed or waxed!!
- Protein– this means meat or meat alternatives like tofu. Try not to lean on deli meats, as they are highly processed and very high in sodium. Choose naturally cured bacon or ham, and use occasionally. Pick things like chicken drumsticks, homemade meatballs, haloumi, chickpeas or lentil patties.
- Dairy or alternatives- We were all brought up to believe that dairy is important because of calcium but we can get calcium from lots of other foods as well. Mix it up and include nut milks, chia seed pudding, tahini, and coconut yoghurt.
- Breads and Cereals- Sandwiches may be easy for the school lunchbox, but they can get boring for kids, and depending on the bread and filling, be really quite high in simple carbohydrates, that just break down rapidly into sugar. Seek out breads that are low GI, use alternatives like wraps made of sweet potato, or grains like Quinoa or brown rice in sushi or patties.
- Vegetables- you know what a vegetable is right?? Most children like 3-4 veggies and haven’t even tried the rest! This where you can encourage your kids to “Eat a Rainbow” and explore more tastes and textures. Try carrot sticks and baby cucumbers one day, a mini slaw the next, perhaps a caprese salad with cherry tomatoes the next. Variety is the key!!
- Water- Your children need to drink water. Not juice, not PowerAde or soft drink. WATER. You can “jazz it up” by infusing it with lemon, lime, cucumber, or berries. Or even make an herbal iced tea as a water alternative (no sugar though!).
Mixing it up seems to be most parent’s biggest dilemma when it comes to making school lunches. You find a successful lunch and want to stick to it. I get it! Let the favourite lunch be the end of week reward for trying the options. Involve your child in planning and teach them how to make better food decisions. A fun way that I’ve just started using with my 7 year old is this interactive lunchbox builder. It highlights to kids how many alternatives there are instead of just a peanut butter sandwich and an apple!
If you are like me, and have a child with food sensitivities or allergies, then it might be fun to make your own version of this app, using recipes you know how to make or are prepared for that week. My little one got all excited on Sunday night that I’d be putting a calzone in her lunch the next day because that’s what she liked the look of on the app, and I had to explain, I CAN make it in the future, but would need to find a gluten free recipe that I can easily make, so it wouldn’t be in this weeks lunch!
Fussy eaters and children on the spectrum might benefit from your own homemade version of this app as well. To manage expectations a bit better I’ve attach a sheet with ideas you can choose from for each category and all you need to do is pick one from each list!
What I’ve found from being a busy mum, who is very conscious about her children eating nutritious balanced meals, is that it’s ok if some days are better (or worse) than others. That it does even out across the day or week.
I try to focus on three-day cycles. If one day was carb heavy, the next day should be more protein and the last day aim for a good balance. It’s not about perfection everyday, but a sustainable, healthy balance in the end.
Getting your child invested in their choices does really make a difference. Try to be the change maker at your school. If everyone else is sending junky fake foods, then perhaps call a class meeting and ask if you can bring in a nutritionist to talk to the parents about WHY it’s important to have real foods and HOW they can do that on a budget, or with fussy eaters.
There are always strategies for change, you just need to believe that things can be changed, and you’ll find a way!!
Our school has a no packaging policy that has made a difference to the amount of processed foods parents are sending to school; perhaps you can implement something like that at your school??
Lastly, if you’ve been sending vegemite and cheese white bread sandwiches everyday since kindy and your kid is in year 4, don’t expect miracles overnight! Take baby steps! If by chance, you are reading this before your child starts school, then this is awesome, do your best at mixing it up and giving lots of variety.
Never send the same thing 2 days in a row! (You can send it every second day, but don’t commit a pattern!!)
We’d love to know what your child LOVES in their lunchbox! Let us know, what lunches come home empty when you send them!! Make a comment below.