Children need good quality fuel to help them through the day. As your kids get ready to head back to school, Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull shares her ideas for healthy, filling and delicious food you can pack in their lunchboxes.
What children eat and drink when they’re at school makes a big difference to their health, well-being and their ability to learn. During school hours, children eat mid-morning and at lunchtime, and to help them focus on work and play, these two meals need to provide one third (if not more) of the nutrition they need in a whole day. So what do you pack in their lunchboxes?
Wholegrain bread and crackers, starchy vegetables such as potato and kumara, wholemeal pasta or couscous, brown rice and quinoa. These foods provide fuel for the body and lots of fibre as well as B vitamins which help the body convert food into energy.
Lean meat, chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, tofu and pulses are good sources of protein to help your children’s bodies to grow and repair — as well as helping to keep them full. These foods also provide a variety of other nutrients including iron and zinc, and omega-3 when fish is included.
It is better to opt for healthy fats and minimise the amount of saturated fat in a lunchbox. Using avocado as a spread or as part of a salad is a great idea. As nuts and nut butters aren’t allowed in many schools, using seeds and seed butters such as tahini or pumpkin seed spread is a good substitute.
As well as providing fibre to keep your little one’s digestive system in good working order, veges provide a whole range of vitamins and minerals.
At least one serving of fruit. This is a healthy sweet treat packed with fibre, vitamins and minerals.
Low-fat yoghurt, cheese and reduced-fat milk add extra protein to lunchboxes, along with calcium for the development of healthy bones.
Including a nutritious snack for morning tea or to be enjoyed with lunch is another chance to boost nutrition with enjoyable little treats (see box, right).
Packing water is a great way to make sure your child stays well hydrated which is really important to keep their brain working at its best. Opting for minimally processed whole foods as much as you can is also ideal and often works out cheaper too. It also means less food packaging to dispose of.
20 nutritious snacks and healthy sides
Making your own snacks is usually healthier and cheaper. Try these ideas.
- Slice of fruit bread
- Homemade fruit and bran muffins
- Cheese cubes and grapes
- Plain popcorn
- Plain unsweetened yoghurt mixed with frozen berries, a tablespoon of rolled oats, a sprinkle of desiccated coconut and a few chia seeds soaked overnight
- Oats soaked overnight with yoghurt, milk and frozen berries or a little chopped dried fruit
- Nut-free trail mix of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins and a few small squares of dark chocolate
- Fresh fruit chunks such as wedges of orange, kiwifruit, banana, apple, pear, peach, strawberries. Variety and eating what’s in season is the way to go!
- Vegetable pikelets
- High-fibre muesli bar
- Pottle or pouch of yoghurt (you can buy reusable pouches)
- Milk and a banana
- Homemade muesli slice
- Savoury muffins with plenty of veges
- Wholegrain crackers and hummus or yoghurt/ vege/pulse-based dip
- Mini frittatas made in muffin cases
- Chunks of chicken or vegetarian sausage with cubes of avocado
- Cottage cheese with sliced apple or pear
- Mini crumble with fruit and oaty topping
- Homemade rice pudding (sweetened with fruit)
20 simple ideas for healthy lunchboxes
- Shredded chicken, avocado (see tip below) and salad in a wholemeal wrap
- Tuna, corn and mayonnaise in wholegrain pita bread with cherry tomatoes
- Vegetable frittata with edamame beans and chickpeas
- Courgette and corn fritters with capsicum chunks and a slice of cheese
- Meat loaf with lots of grated veges), wholemeal pita wedges with light cream cheese and raw vege chunks
- Leftover vege pizza with hard-boiled egg and capsicum slices
- Brown rice salad with roasted pumpkin, tomato and avocado with lemon dressing
- Potato and egg salad with carrot sticks
- Tuna/salmon pasta salad with peas, corn and tomato
- Chicken/tofu pasta/rice/barley salad with pesto and veges
Bento box (pick‘n’mix)
- Mini meatballs with chunks of avocado and tomato with pasta shapes
- Falafels with avocado, corn and tomato salad
- Mini tuna/salmon/white fish cakes with celery sticks filled with low-fat cream cheese
- Chicken and avocado sushi with carrot sticks
- Roasted veges with chicken chunks (or last night’s chicken roast), plus cucumber and carrot sticks
- Summer rolls (Vietnamese spring rolls) with chicken or tofu, rice noodles and mini corn on the cob
If your child is sick of sandwiches, why not give them food in a mini thermos flask/insulated food jar (buy them online) designed for lunch on the go.
- Lamb and vegetable casserole
- Chicken, vegetable and barley soup with a wholegrain bread roll
- Mince and vege pasta bake
- Dahl and rice with peas
Tips for fussy eaters
There’s nothing more frustrating than making a delicious lunch and having it returned untouched! Here are a few strategies to help avoid this.
- If lunch is uneaten, avoid engaging in conflict and instead try to have a calm conversation. It could be because your child doesn’t have enough time to eat all their lunch because they eat too slowly, or perhaps they are distracted by other kids or activities. Getting to the ‘WHY’ behind the untouched lunchbox can be enlightening and may change your approach.
- Before embarking on a massive bulk baking mission for school lunches, give things a trial run at home, in a relaxed environment.
- Get kids involved. Allowing your children to help make their lunches and pack them can make them feel they’ve got some say in what they are eating. It is best to give them one or two options to keep things simple. Would you like a sandwich or a wrap? A yoghurt or some cheese? Apple or kiwifruit?
- Make things look special. Cut veges or fruit into shapes; put stickers on the skins of fruit. You could even include a little message in their lunchbox!
- Ask your child what their friends are having? This gives you an idea of what the other kids are eating as no child wants to be the odd one out!
- Kids go through phases so if they don’t try a new food first time around, give it a whirl again in a few weeks.
- Some kids will be happy with a sandwich or wrap but others will eat more if their lunch is varied. The items in a lunchbox don’t always have to look like a meal. Some kids like odd combinations and provided they are balanced, roll with them.
- Make things EASY to eat. They’re more likely to eat food that is ready to go.
- If you offer your child a reward for eating lunch, don’t make it a sugary treat such as a biscuit. Use a non-food incentive such as a trip to the park, stickers or swimming. Rewarding eating well with a sweet treat can make a healthy lunch look boring.
- Don’t give yourself a hard time if all they eat is a cheese sandwich and a banana. If they’re eating well at home, don’t stress. You can try new ideas and strategies later. Kids are clever and may start to use food as an emotional trigger, so it’s best to avoid this trap.
- Add a frozen drink bottle to the lunchbox to keep food cool in hot weather.
- A squeeze of lemon will stop avocado going brown.
Article sources and references
- Alaimo C et al. 2001. Food insufficiency and American school-aged children’s cognitive, academic, and psychosocial development. Pediatrics 108(1)https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11433053
- Australian National Health and Medical Research Council & New Zealand Ministry of Health. 2014. Water. Available at www.nrv.gov.au/nutrients/waterhttps://www.nrv.gov.au/
- Children’s Commissioner. 2014. Guidelines for school food programmes. Best practice guidance for your school. Available at www.occ.org.nz/assets/Publications/Guidelines-for-Food-in-Schools.pdfhttp://www.occ.org.nz/assets/Publications/Guidelines-for-School-Food-Programmes.pdf
- Margriet S et al. 2012. Dietary protein – its role in satiety, energetics, weight loss and health. British Journal of Nutrition 108: S105-12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23107521
- Ministry of Health. 2012. Food and Nutrition Guidelines for Healthy Children and Young People (Aged 2–18 years): A background paper. Partial revision February 2015. Wellington: Ministry of Healthhttps://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/food-nutrition-guidelines-healthy-children-young-people-background-paper-feb15-v2.pdf