Yvonne Walus gives bite-size tips for lunchbox planning.
Will your child eat it?
Because eating well plays an important role in learning, parents often feel pressured to provide lunches that are delicious, nutritious, colourful, inventive and varied. But honestly, the two most important questions about the lunchbox contents should be: will your child eat it, and is it healthy? Bonus points if it's easy to prepare.
Ideally, of course, the lunchbox will contain the following food groups most of the time:
• Fruit and vegetables
• Grains (sandwiches, mini-pizzas, fried rice)
• Dairy products, or calcium-rich alternatives (tofu, salmon and calcium-fortified plant milk products)
• Meat or protein alternatives such as eggs, beans, lentils, seeds and nuts (because nuts are allergens, do check your school’s lunch box policy).
It’s okay not to include all food groups every single day. If the lunchbox is light on fruit or vegetables, for example, make up for it at dinnertime.
Some children like variety, but many prefer a predictable lunch. For one child this may mean jam sandwiches on Mondays, mousetraps on Tuesdays, cream cheese burritos on Wednesdays, while others need the same things for lunch every day.
Got a fussy kid?
By now you’re familiar with your child’s unique preferences ("yes" to avo, "no" to banana, for example). The trouble is, though, that some of their firm favourites don’t transport well, so you may have to expand the menu with packed lunches. Because younger children don’t like trying new food, it might help to serve any experimental dishes at home first.
To get their buy-in, talk to them about healthy food that should be eaten every day, as opposed to occasional treats. Seek their input and let them make some decisions: We need protein in your lunchbox today, would you prefer a hard-boiled egg or a packet of beef jerky?
If your child leaves food in the lunchbox, ask them about it (sweet revenge, now you can ask the why questions): perhaps they weren’t that hungry, or they played handball the entire lunch break, or they’ve suddenly gone off that certain food. Children can be fickle: just when you think you have it all worked out, they will decide that they hate tomatoes or that yoghurt is yucky.
Get them involved
Another great way to get your children on board with the contents of the lunchbox is to empower them to pack it themselves.
• When children start school, they are generally excited to help with the lunchbox. You can ask them to put the carrot sticks into the blue bag and the raisins into the yellow box. • By late primary school, they can make their own sandwiches and salads.
• At Intermediate level, they are perfectly capable of preparing their own lunchboxes. Note: this is when they develop phobias about tuna breath, getting fat and food getting stuck in their teeth.
Keep it cool
Dairy products and meats need to be kept cool until lunchtime for health and safety reasons. Invest in a well- insulated lunchbox that’s large enough to accommodate a small bottle of frozen water, a small carton of frozen juice or a bag of frozen grapes. Such edible ice packs should help keep the food fresh. On hot days, encourage your child to eat the dairy and meat items as early in the day as possible.
Reduce the waste
With good planning, you should have minimal food wastage. But what about chippie bags and muesli bar wrappers? Now we all know it’s healthier to make snacks at home, but if that’s not possible, why not buy things like popcorn or trail mix.
There are plenty of opportunities to eat at school. Most schools have a 5-minute break around 10am for a snack. Generally, morning tea is 25-30 minutes, and lunch 30-45 minutes to allow for playtime. Eating is often supervised in early primary, with teachers encouraging kids to eat.
Munch time! Packed lunch ideas
• Carrot and celery sticks with dip
• Cherry tomatoes
• Corn on the cob
• Fresh or frozen berries
• Mini bran muffin with cream cheese and sultanas
• Cheese scones
• Apple flapjacks
• Hard-boiled egg
• Roast chicken drumsticks
• Sushi with avocado, tofu and cucumber
• Cold noodle salad with vegetables and seeds
• Cheese quesadilla with salsa and guacamole.
Sandwich, pita pocket or wrap filled with:
• Mashed seasoned avocado, cucumber and lettuce
• Cream cheese, raisins and finely chopped dates
• Hummus, lettuce and grated carrots
• Roast beed slices, mayo, cucumber, tomato
More on health from Tots to Teens: