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Back to school: How to avoid lunchbox drama

Ah yes, after the long summer holiday, we are often quietly pleased to see our kids get back into the routine of school. Need some new lunchbox ideas?

“My kids are bored with sandwiches – what are some new ideas for their lunchboxes?” is a question I am frequently asked.

This question always makes me smile, because I automatically think of my brother. He had jam sandwiches practically every day of his schooling life! He just liked jam!

Today, parents making lunches have to consider:

  • How to navigate the supermarket aisles looking for healthy but child-accepted snack foods.
  • Food safety issues: warm summer lunchboxes can be a bacteria breeding ground!
  • School policies on allergen-containing foods (such as nuts).

On top of this, it’s important to know what kids really need to eat for learning, concentration and growth and development.

There is no single magic food children have to eat to be well. But they need to be exposed to a variety of foods and enough food to sustain their needs for growth. The trick to balancing the energy needs of children is to let them lead you on their hunger. A child’s appetite will vary from day to day, so allow them to judge how much food to eat; when left alone they will stop when they are full.

Carbohydrate is the primary source of fuel for the brain and the exercising muscles. Carbohydrate is found in mainly plant-based foods such as breads, cereals, fruit and vegetables but also in milk and milk products. A child’s ability to think and play will be impaired if they do not get enough of these foods. It’s important that the carbohydrate foods children eat are wholesome and not just highly refined ‘white’ carbohydrate foods like biscuits, cakes and pastry, that also contain high levels of fat, salt and sugar.

When New Zealand children freely choose their food, approximately 13% of daily energy comes from protein. As long as a child is achieving good growth, you can be assured they are getting enough protein.

To provide everything a child needs for energy and growth, the lunchbox should always contain at least:

  • Bread: eg. 2 x high-fibre white bread sandwiches made with margarine and marmite
  • Fruit: eg. a container of berries and grapes
  • Dairy: eg. 1 x cheese triangle
  • Drink: a pre-frozen drink bottle
  • Snacks: a piece of homemade slice or high-fibre muesli bar or 2 x fruit digestive biscuits; a raw peeled carrot

It can be tough for parents when lunches aren’t eaten. Variety can help, so try these ideas:

Vary the bread

You could try doing a different type of bread or baked item each week to jazz up sandwiches:

  • Week 1: wraps or pitas
  • Week 2: rolls
  • Week 3: muffins/scones
  • Week 4: focaccia bread
  • Week 5: crackers
  • Week 6: regular sandwiches

Mix up the fruit

Use fruit in fresh, canned or dried forms. A whole piece of fruit will be most likely returned uneaten if it is bruised or battered. Try popping bite-sized fruit into small containers. I personally like any kind of seedless grape with mandarin segments, or frozen orange quarters. Transfer canned fruit into a small container with an easy-to-remove lid, or buy the individual fruit pottles (don’t forget to include a spoon). There are so many varieties of dried fruit these days; dried cranberries, dried blueberries and dried papaya are some of the more exotic ones. However, eating raisins and blowing into the box to make the squeaking sound is always a fun thing to do if you are a kid!

Different dairy

Dairy-based snacks can become warm and inedible in the summer months. Try freezing your children’s favourite yoghurts or Fruche. It will thaw as the day progresses and will still be nice to eat. Another yummy dairy-based snack is a cheese triangle – I haven’t met a kid yet who doesn’t like peeling off the foil. Although some parents argue that processed cheese is not as healthy as traditional cheese, this option is high in calcium and protein and is widely accepted by kids.

  • Cold, cooked corn on the cob in small bite-sized chunks makes a healthy vegetable snack
  • Mix popcorn with dried fruit for a high-energy snack
  • Sandwich homemade blueberry fruit pikelets or store-bought plain pikelets together with jam
  • Leftover pizza slice
  • Pottles of bite-sized fruit such as mandarin segments and grapes, or frozen blueberries with fresh strawberries
  • Mini bagels split and sandwiched with chocolate hazelnut spread
  • Jaffles (toasted sandwiches made with whole-grain bread or fruit toast) eaten cold – savoury, eg cheese and tomato, or sweet, eg apple and cinnamon
  • Cut up vegetables with bagel or pita crisps and hummus or dip
  • Small bags of nuts
  • Creamed rice in small pottles
  • Pretzels
  • Rice cakes
  • Chunky cereal like fruity bix

It’s discouraging when lunches come home intact and uneaten. Solving this problem can be as much about psychological tactics as what you actually include in the lunchbox. Try these tips:

  • Involve your kids with what goes in the lunchbox. Discuss options and let the kids choose some items when shopping. Get them to help make the lunches; they’ll be much more inclined to eat something they’ve made.
  • Try new foods at home first, before sending them to school in the lunchbox. Surprises aren’t always welcome!
  • Peer pressure is big. Kids often want to eat exactly what their friends have. Talk to your child about this. If the friends seem to have too many treat items, explain that you are looking after their health. Some of the reality programmes on TV, like ‘Honey we’re killing the kids’, can actually help kids understand why you don’t overdo the treats: it’s really not because the other mums are ‘nicer’ than you!
  • Small packages are appealing to most kids. Try dividing food into small ziplock bags or plastic containers.
  • Include non-food items every now and then. A note, joke or small toy can be a nice surprise.
  • Don’t worry if your child wants to eat the same thing every day. You can introduce variety in other lunch foods, like fruit, and in other meals.

Although sandwiches suit many kids, sometimes it’s nice to mix it up a bit and try different things. Our tastes – and our kids’ tastes – have become more exotic in recent years, so it’s worth experimenting with ethnic and more exotic options.

Fun lunchbox fillers include:

  • Rice paper parcels – filled with thin carrot strips, tahini, cucumber strips and glass noodles.
  • Falafel buns – use pre-made falafels in a pita pocket with hummus and salad.
  • Cheesy vegetable frittata squares – use creamed corn, pre-cooked potato cubes, pre-cooked broccoli and edam cheese.
  • Risotto cake – use leftover risotto rolled into balls. Put a little ham and a cube of cheese in the middle.
  • Tortilla ‘sushi’ roll-ups – blended avocado, cream cheese, finely shredded lettuce, grated carrot and toasted sesame seeds.
  • Rice
    salad – a combination of basmati and brown rice with soy sauce and rice
    bran oil dressing, grated ginger, pumpkin seeds, diced red and yellow
    capsicum. Try Fruity rice salad recipe.

Young children are among the groups of people who can be more at risk from food-born illness, so food safety in the lunchbox is especially important. Often bacteria that can cause food poisoning are naturally present in foods and if not handled correctly, the bacteria can multiply to a level that can cause illness.

There are some foods that bacteria can grow and multiply on more easily than others. These include many foods you’ll want to put in a lunchbox: meat, poultry, dairy products, eggs, smallgoods such as ham and salami, seafood, cooked rice and pasta, prepared salads like coleslaws, pasta salads and rice salads, and prepared fruit salads.

If any of these high-risk foods are going into a lunchbox they should be kept at 4°C or below for as long as possible. An insulated lunchbox and a long-lasting chiller pad are ideal. You can also use frozen drink bottles and yoghurt pottles to help keep food chilled. Avoid packing food that has just been cooked or is still warm; refrigerate overnight before you pack it into the lunchbox.

Following safe food handling practices in the kitchen at all times will help ensure the food going into lunchboxes is safe food.

When it comes to school lunches, it pays to keep a calm head and remember, it’s not the end of the world if it seems like not much is getting eaten at lunchtime. You have the other meals and snacks in the day to make sure your kids are getting a good variety of food, and chances are if you do ensure variety, and lead by example, they’ll get the nutrients they need to be healthy.

First published: Feb 2007



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