Packing a lunch is often the least favorite among a long list of school chores, however it is also the most important job we do as parents.
Without a nourishing box of food that will provide energy and nutrients for their body and brain, children will have a significantly reduced capacity to concentrate, learn, remember and engage in social and physical activity.
The following tips will not only help make lunch prep less daunting but help you support your child’s academic performance. Junk food has been linked to poor academic performance and behavioral difficulties. In contrast, healthy lifestyle behaviors in early adolescents have been linked to academic achievement.
1. Read Food Labels
- Read the labels of everything you buy! Turn the packet over and read the small print that the food industry doesn’t want you to read.
- If sugar features in the top 5 ingredients, it is generally considered a high sugar food.
- If the list is full of ingredients that you don’t recognize as whole food, it is likely to be highly processed.
- If it is labeled as low fat, be aware that this is a processed food and check the sugar content.
- If it is labeled for children, also check the sugar and additives content.
2. Create a meal plan and make sure you always have the ingredients you need available.
3. Involve your children
- The more involved they are, the more likely they are to eat their lunches.
- Talk to them about what they like and about the benefit of the food they eat on their performance at school. What do they love doing? Tell them that food is the energy behind their favorite sport or activity.
- Try a new food item together on a weekend, so that it is familiar to them before it gets into their lunch box.
- Let them have some control by letting them choose. But make sure you give them ONLY a selection of healthy foods to choose from. For example, ask, “Which fruit do you want?”
- Involve them in preparing their lunch.
4. Make use of leftovers
- Turn leftover cooked brown rice, quinoa, quinoa pasta, buckwheat groats into a lunchbox main course by adding chopped fresh vegetables (sweetcorn, carrots, peas, kale), chopped herbs (parsley, basil), a protein (for e.g., chicken, tuna, egg, lentils, or beans) and a homemade dressing.
- During dinner make enough extra to set aside for lunches the next day or freeze in portions.
- Invest in a good wide mouth thermos to pack hot food. Soups or stews with quinoa work really well. Simply heat in the morning and add to the flask then, top off with fresh herbs, like parsley.
5. Chop up or prepare food items
Save small children time with peeling and fiddling by prepping awkward items. E.g., peel and segment the clementine, cut up the apple for small mouths (squeeze a little lemon over it so it doesn’t brown), make small cubes of melon, cut sandwiches so they are easy to hold. But remember that once fruit and vegetables are cut open, those nutrients are exposed to light and air and will start to degrade. So make sure to store in airtight container in the fridge or if possible leave this as a last minute job in the morning
6. Teach kids to be alert and aware of the rainbow of foods
Processed foods are generally beige. (crisps, white bread, white pasta, chips, biscuits, cakes muffins etc). Encourage your kids to examine their lunch and ask if it looks too beige or if it needs coloring up with fresh fruit, green leaves, red tomatoes, orange carrots, yellow pepper etc etc.
Daily food suggestions for lunch boxes
Fruit – Make sure there is always 1 fresh fruit serving in each box. Dried fruit is less ideal as it is a concentrated sugar source (even if it isn’t covered in sugar or chocolate) and we tend to eat too much of it because it is smaller than fresh fruit (think grapes vs. raisins). So have it occasionally and mix it with a protein source like plain whole fat yoghurt or raw nuts if allowed in school.
Vegetables – At least 2 servings per lunch box. Choose from vegetable sticks with a small pot of dip (hummus, guacamole), small containers with mixed vegetables such as cherry tomatoes, carrot sticks, pepper, celery and cucumber. You can include some olives and pickles for variety and flavor (gherkins, onions, sauerkraut). If including a sandwich, always add some plant food such as micro greens (it’s fun to grow these with kids too!), spinach, lettuce, cucumber, herbs or kale. A hot stew or soup can add a hearty supply of cooked vegetables (potatoes, carrots, legumes, leaves etc).
Whole grain starchy carbs – These are whole grains or starchy vegetables like potatoes & yams. This element adds needed fiber and is filling. Make sure to always choose whole grain – look for sprouted grains for added nutrients. This element can be the sandwich or quinoa, rice, crackers or a homemade healthy cake or muffin treat to have with the fruit at morning break. Commercial granola bars are best avoided but you can make a better version very simply yourself. These freeze well.
Yogurt – Always choose plain, full fat, whole milk. It should be organic and have no sugar or additives. Buy a large pot of yogurt and serve into small containers, then add a 1/2 tsp of honey, maple syrup, monk fruit or stevia (use a rotation of sweeteners so you benefit and also avoid too much of one type), and a sprinkle of crunchy seeds or cacao nibs. Not everyone tolerates dairy well, so you may create a weekly rotation of sheep, goat, cow or dairy-free yogurts (check the sugar content of dairy free options first!).
Fruit compote – An alternative to yogurt and a way to add more fruit is to include a chilled fruit puree/compote.
Protein sources – Add a protein to each lunch box. This creates sustained energy and fills children up for longest. Meat, fish (e.g., cold cooked salmon, smoked salmon or tuna), whole milk cheese (for those that tolerate dairy; you may rotate between goat, sheep or cow). Eggs (as hard boiled, egg mayo, mini frittata’s or quiche) and legumes (lentils and beans added to soup and salad.)
Water – The most important element for their day. Even mild dehydration can cause symptoms including headaches, irritability, poorer physical performance, fatigue and reduced cognitive functioning. Water is the only drink they need. If they are used to having juice, milkshakes or other sweet drinks – start the change gradually by diluting juices or keeping them for after school, but aim to make water their main drink.
Things to avoid
- Sweet dips such as chocolate spreads.
- Flavored, low fat yogurts and pudding pots.
- Chips and highly fatty and salted crackers (e.g., Goldfish)
- Processed cheeses
- Highly processed cookies and cakes where sugar is the first ingredient (e.g., Oreos)
- Dried fruit and fruit bars as they can often stick to their teeth.
- Juices and sweet flavored milk.
- Donuts, creamy cakes and candy.
- Granola and ‘breakfast’ bars – Almost all ‘bars’ are too high in sugar. These are expensive and usually stuck together with high quantities of fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, sugar, other sweeteners and even honey in large amounts is too much sugar.
Introduce new things slowly. There may be several items on this list that are new to your child or that should ideally be left out the lunch box. Take your time to slowly swap one thing for another. There is no need to suddenly throw out all that is familiar. It can take a whole school year to gradually boost the ‘healthiness’ of your child’s lunch. Which is absolutely fine if these changes then become their new routine for life.
The lunch box – what kind of a box should I buy?
Environmental lunch boxes – Why avoid plastic and opt for stainless steel?
While there are many BPA-free options now on the market, plastic is plastic and it all comes from chemicals that are no good for the environment or us. Research is now suggesting that BPA free containers are also unsafe. A study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2011 tested BPA free products, many of which were BPA free baby bottles and plastic food containers, and it found that over 90% of products tested leached chemicals that can act as endocrine disruptors. Endocrine disruptors are compounds that interfere with our hormone system.
As a mom and wellbeing professional I can offer my personal experience of lunch boxes and I hope that it will give you some guidance.
Stainless steel is considered one of the safest materials to use with food and drinks, it is also durable, light and won’t break when dropped. So all my lunch boxes searches have been for stainless steel.
This is what I look for when choosing a lunch box
- Primarily stainless steel with zero plastic components. This is a challenge and often they have plastic lids but there are brands that have leak proof silicone lids.
- Designed to be kept flat. Contents will stay in place and still look appetizing when it is opened after a journey in a school bag.
- They should also be easy to open but leak proof.
Food safety in lunch boxes
In most cases, food is stored in lunch boxes for several hours, so the lunch box needs to stay cool. Food safety suggestions include:
- Choose an insulated lunch box or one with a freezer pack, or include a wrapped frozen water bottle to keep the lunch box cool.
- Follow hygienic food preparation methods.
- When preparing lunches the night before, store in the fridge or freezer.
- Perishable foods such as dairy products, eggs and sliced meats should be cool when packed and eaten within about four hours of preparation. Don’t pack cooked foods when still warm, they should be properly cooled first. When heating foods make sure they are thoroughly heated and keep in a thermos to keep hot.