It’s the start of another school year, which means it’s time to start packing those lunch boxes again! Cue a collective groan from parents across the country.
Good news! Preparing a healthy lunchbox is surprisingly easy once you follow this very simple lunchbox formula. And even better is that it has the approval of both kids and Dietitians (myself included!) as it strikes the balance between fun, appealing eats and providing the nutrients that growing bodies need.
A nutritionally balanced lunchbox can be divided into four sections:
- Low glycaemic index (GI) carbohydrates for energy
- Protein for fullness and to fuel muscle growth
- Fruit & Vegies for fibre and vitamins
- Snack foods that provide both excitement and some nutritional benefit
Plus water of course! This is the best fluid of choice for hydration. Always include a small bottle – as an added bonus this can double up as a cooling device for food in the lunchbox if it has been frozen overnight. Fruit juice, soft drinks, sports drinks and cordials are high in sugar and are not appropriate every day.
Fuel for the brain – Carbohydrates
Lunch should include some carbohydrate-based food for energy, such as bread (slices or a roll), wraps, crackers, pasta or rice – ideally, you should be choosing a grainy type as these are lower in GI and help keep your kids fuller for longer. Wraps in particular are great as they are easy to eat and less likely to go soggy.
If your child really hates wholemeal/wholegrain options, a better choice than traditional white is a low GI high fibre white bread. However, remember if you keep offering white bread to them they will continue to want it!
Pick a Protein
The next step is to add a protein-rich item to the lunchbox, whether it be in the form of a sandwich filling, or in a snack.
Protein-rich foods, such as eggs, lean meat or reduced fat dairy products provide important nutrients such as iron, zinc and vitamin B12. The latter in particular provide calcium and other key nutrients such as magnesium and phosphorus, which are needed from strong bones and healthy teeth. A tub of low fat yoghurt, cheese with crackers or a salmon wrap (with the soft, calcium rich bones) contain protein and are a good source of calcium.
Add healthy options such as tinned fish, chicken, turkey, lean meat, boiled egg, tahini or low fat cheese to sandwiches or wraps. Leftovers can also make great next day sandwich fillers – try mini frittatas, rissoles or fishcakes. And chickpeas or other legumes mixed through a salad or in vegie patties are a protein-rich great vegetarian alternative!
Some other protein-rich/low GI lunchbox filler ideas include:
- Cheese sticks
- Low fat cottage cheese or hummus with crackers/vegie sticks,
- Milk poppers
- Trail mix with dried fruit & seeds (pumpkin, sunflower etc)
- Small tub of yoghurt
Crunch and Colour – Fruit and Vegies
Fresh is always preferable to dried, fruit sticks or juice as it contains more fibre and fewer kilojoules. Going for seasonal options helps to keep the cost down, and usually means a tastier fruit!
For young children, fruit can be presented in ready-to-eat pieces in small containers or snap lock bags. Easy options include cubes of melon, orange quarters, cut up apple (a little lemon juice squeezed on will stop it going brown), chunks of kiwi or a small container of grapes, strawberries, blueberries or cherries. Frozen grapes are particularly great in the Summer months – they taste a bit like sorbet!
Vegies are great because they add a bit of crunch and colour to the lunch box. Include salad vegies, creamed corn, avocado, hummus or baked beans to sandwiches and wraps – light salads such as lettuce and grated carrot are great for the extra nutrition minus the soggy bread come lunch time. Adding baby spinach to salads, sandwiches or mini frittatas provides both a vegie hit and an extra whack of calcium. Another easy way to add some veg is to include portable vegie snacks such as cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers or sticks of carrot, celery, cucumber, capsicum or snow peas – these work particularly well accompanied with a small container of dip, such as hummus or tzatziki.
Growing bodies certainly need energy, but it should be of good quality. Unfortunately many of the processed snack and muesli bars in the supermarket are not very nutritious and contain far too much fat, sugar or salt. If you must, aim to provide just one packaged snack in your child’s lunchbox each day, and try and follow the healthy snack criteria below.
Kilojoules – aim for less than 650kj per serve
Fat – 5g or less fat per 100g
Sugar – 10g or less per 100g
It is also important to keep in mind that commercial foods contain a larger amount of packaging, and therefore create a large amount of rubbish. Many schools these days have a ‘nude food’ policy that disallows packaging and encourages reusable containers – all the more reason to get making your own healthy treats!
My Top Tips
- Encourage children to help choose and prepare their own lunch! This way, they’ll be more likely to eat it.
- Plan what foods to include for the week – cook a little extra dinner for leftovers, and have enough fillings, fruit and veggies readily available.
- Cut up fruits and veg – kids are more likely to eat it in snack form
- Worried about whether food will go off before lunchtime? Pack in an insulated container and throw in an ice brick.
- Make a batch of healthier treats on the weekend to have something special for the week’s lunchbox, as well as having some fun together practicing math and cooking skills. Store in an airtight container or wrap individually and freeze.
- And finally, don’t get discouraged if your children come home with food left in their lunch boxes. There are many reasons why they may not have eaten – not being hungry or having been too busy playing are a couple! Get them to empty their lunch box when they get home – some of the leftovers could be a good after school snack
I am also running a few ‘Healthy lunchbox’ Supermarket Tours in the month of February, so come along to pick up some more tips!
Contact us to find out more.