Mornings are busy, and often stressful. One of the biggest stressors for parents is packing a healthy lunchbox that will get eaten. Here’s our tips on helping make healthy lunchboxes easy.
Why is a healthy lunchbox important?
Healthy lunches and snacks are important for children, so it’s worth putting in a little thought about what you send them off to school with. A healthy lunchbox will:
- Give them sustained energy to concentrate and learn at school
- Help set healthy eating habits for them in the future
- Mean they have healthy food while they’re at school – where they spend a third of their day
It’s also important to remember that the quality of food you give your child is more important than the quantity. Children need foods that are rich in nutrients such as protein, healthy sources of fat, fibre and vitamin and minerals while drinking plenty of water. These nutrients will help to give children sustained energy. When these nutrients are removed (which is common in many processed foods and sugary drinks) the food is broken down quickly and causes a quick and short release of sugar and energy in the body, leading to a crash in energy. This crash will leave children feeling tired and unmotivated to learn at school.
How can I pack a healthy lunchbox?
A healthy lunchbox should consist of at least one item from the five food groups — bread and cereals, vegetables, fruit, dairy and meat (or meat alternatives). This will give your child a variety of nutritious foods to keep them satisfied and energised.
Bread/cereal: children need plenty of energy and foods that will keep them full throughout the day. The following good bread/cereal choices are high in fibre and essential nutrients, which provide children with slow-releasing energy, keeping them active and energised throughout the day.
Good choices: wholegrain/wholemeal bread, rye bread, pasta bake, pasta/rice, wraps, Lebanese bread, rice/corn crackers, dry cereal.
Fruit and vegetables: provide children with the essential vitamins, minerals, and fibre they need in the day. Always include a serve of fruit and vegetables in their lunchbox to get them accustomed to reaching their 2&5.
Good choices: whole or chopped fruit e.g. apples, grapes, strawberries, nectarines, tinned fruit salad (in juice), sultanas/dried fruit, sliced tomato, cucumber and lettuce in sandwich, carrot and celery sticks, stir-fry/baked veggies in noodle or rice, corn on cob.
Meat and meat alternatives: provide the protein children need for building muscle, concentration/ alertness and keeping fuller for longer.
Good choices: tinned tuna, mashed boiled egg, leftover shredded chicken/roast beef, baked beans, falafel, lentil/beans, meatballs.
Dairy: main source of calcium, which is very important for helping children develop strong bones and teeth.
Good choices: small tub of yoghurt, cheese cubes/slices, milk poppers, custard, soft cheese spreads.
Drink: children need to stay well hydrated, particularly when they are active all day.
Good choices: water or milk, 100% fruit juice (only sometimes).
Putting it all together
There 4 main components that makes up a healthy lunchbox. They are:
- Main lunch:
- Sandwich using wholemeal/wholegrain sliced bread, Lebanese bread, pita wraps with a nutritious filling e.g. shredded chicken/tuna/cheese/hummus/egg/falafel with salad
- Leftover rice/pasta/noodles with meat/vegetables
- Homemade pizza, vegetable/meat patties, vegetable fritters
- Nutritious snacks (1-2 choices): Small tub of yoghurt, cheese and crackers, air-popped popcorn, veggie sticks and dip, corn on cob, homemade fruit muffins, rice crackers with hummus
- Piece of fruit: fresh fruit – 1 medium apple/banana, 4-5 strawberries, 2 small peaches/plums, 8-10 grapes, 1 cup tinned fruit (in juice), or small handful of dried fruit
- Drink: Water bottle (always!), milk (250ml), 100% fruit juice (125mls only sometimes)
Children’s appetites and energy level differ, depending on their age and activity level. If growing children need an additional snack in their lunchbox and some variety, you can include an “occasional” snack, such as a muesli bar, sweet biscuits, small packet of chips or dry noodles once a week. These should not be included as a daily item as they are low in nutrients and may give children the wrong message about “everyday” and “sometimes” food.
Why are these foods considered as “sometimes/occasional” foods?
These snack foods and drinks (e.g. chocolates, cakes, biscuits, potato chips, cordial, soft drinks, sports drinks) are highly processed and high in added sugars, saturated fat or salt and usually high in calories/kilojoules and generally low in nutrients. Eating too much of these foods can lead to children gaining too much weight, developing tooth decay and missing out on essential nutrients from other “everyday” foods.
What are the common barriers to healthy lunchboxes?
Here are common challenges you may face, when providing your children/child with a healthy lunchbox.
- Make food look more presentable and fun – making pinwheel sandwiches, add a sticker reward inside the lunchbox, use food cutter to cut sandwiches/fruit into fun shapes.
- Consider if the lunch and snacks are too fiddly. Some children are put off by fiddly packaging or don’t like getting sticky hands. Try removing the orange peel or cut a kiwi fruit in half and add a spoon/fork. Prevent sandwich from going soggy or drippy by adding less filling, drying lettuce/salad vegetables with paper towel and removing seeds off tomatoes.
- Large portions may be overwhelming for children. Try offering smaller serving sizes to make it more manageable e.g. cut half or quarter sandwiches, cut large fruit such as oranges, watermelon in bite size pieces, offer small fruits such as strawberries, apricots.
- Increase your child’s familiarity and create positive experiences associated with new foods by involving them in planning for the lunch menu (e.g. shopping to choose a fruit and vegetables for their lunchbox and meal preparation/packing their lunchbox).
- Avoid substituting uneaten lunch and snack with their favourite foods (e.g. biscuits, chocolate etc), as your child may learn that this is the reward for food refusal. Give them time to become accustomed to these new foods.
- Prepare extra for dinner that can be used in lunchboxes e.g. leftover roast chicken can be shredded and added to sandwich/wrap or leftover spaghetti bolognaise muffins (mix cheese and an egg into left spaghetti and bake in muffin case).
- Making homemade vegetable slices/muffins and fruit cakes/muffins/bread and pack in lunchboxes for the week.
- Pack lunchboxes the night before and have your children be involved.
- Buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season to ensure good quality and value for money.
- Make your own snacks. For example, homemade popcorn that can be packed in individual containers/snack packs, homemade muffins/bread using fruit and vegetables.
- Buy in bulk and pack in individual containers/bags e.g. yoghurt, popcorn, and dried fruit.
- Sometimes healthy food and fresh produce is perceived as being more expensive than processed, packaged foods.
How can I keep my child’s lunchbox safe and fresh?
When packing a school lunch, it is important to keep the food and drinks cool to prevent the growth of bacteria in the food, which can make children sick. This is particularly important for foods containing meat, cheese, milk, yoghurt and eggs.
Some easy ways to keep your child’s lunchbox safe include:
- Using an insulated lunch box or include a freezer pack or small bottle of frozen water to keep the lunchbox cool
- If you make your child’s lunch the night before, keep it in the fridge overnight
- If you’re packing warm food such as soup/stews, heat it up in the morning and pack it in a thermos, that way it will still be warm at lunchtime. Some schools have microwaves for children to heat their lunch, so check whether your school has one.
- On hot days, try freezing milk poppers and water bottles the night before so by lunch they have defrosted.
Over to you
What are some of your favourite healthy lunchbox meal ideas?