Whenever school goes back for the year, the one thing every parent seems to dread is packing school lunchboxes. And understandable so! Packing a school lunchbox is like walking a tight rope. Not only does it need to be nutritious for growing bodies, it also has to taste and look good so that they actually eat it! This can be a challenge for even the most inventive and organised parent!
With most children spending an average of seven hours at school each day, it is important that children are provided with nutrient packed food choices to give them with the energy and vitality to power through the day while also supporting healthy growth and development.
The most common issues when children do not eat well while at school is an inability to focus and concentrate in class. Teachers often say to me that by 1pm, many kids just don’t have the energy to stay on task. Unfortunately, this often leads to homework also being a difficult task in the afternoons.
And of course the biggest complaint from parents and children alike is the tired and cranky ‘I’m so hungry’ moans after school. Often, this leads to cravings for refined foods that are high in sugar. Believe it or not, a more balanced lunchbox (and a good breakfast) will help to calm those insatiable tummies while also helping to them to be more energised (and less irritable) to tackle their afternoon activities and homework.
So, we know we want happy kids that have energy and are ready to learn but how do we make this happen?!
My key rules when teaching kids and parents to make a lunch box are:
ALWAYS include protein. I cannot stress this enough. Almost every lunchbox I see has a distinct void when it comes to protein sources. Protein is commonly referred to as the building blocks of the body and is essential to maintain and renew cells in the body as children grow.
One of the most important day-to-day functions of protein is that it fills kids up and keeps them full. Enough protein in their lunchbox helps to keep their blood glucose levels more stable which assists with concentration and focus. All of this leads to less grumpy and starving kids at the end of the school day.
Protein sources are easy to remember as they are anything that comes from an animal such as chicken, fish, eggs, turkey, mince or dairy. Nuts, seeds and legumes (such as chickpeas and four bean mix) are also a great source of protein.
A serve of fruit. Fruits provide the body with essential nutrients such as dietary fibre, vitamins and minerals. They also contain phytochemicals which helps protect cells from the damage caused by pollutants.
I always believe fresh is best when it comes to fruit. Serving fruit in different and exciting ways is a great way to entice fussy eaters to munch on some fruit (see meal plan for some ideas). Dried fruit (unpreserved where possible) is also acceptable however I find this is best kept as a sweetener in recipes so that kids learn to eat whole fruits in their different forms. As a general rule, I am not a fan of packaged juices as they have all the fibre stripped from them and often sugar added. This contributes to peaks and crashes in blood glucose levels, which is not ideal!
Include vegetables or salad (in any form). We all know vegetables are important however often children are not as obliging to accept this. One thing I tell every parent is ‘don’t give up’ when it comes to vegetables. It takes children at least 10 tries of something before they will truly accept or reject a food. Just because it doesn’t get eaten the first few times doesn’t mean it will never get eaten!
I suggest offering salads and vegies in lots of different ways in lunchboxes. A few ideas include…
Use mini vegetable cutters to cut vegetables like cucumber into shapes like stars and hearts.
Mini cherry tomatoes are great for lunchboxes as they don’t go soggy and are sweet and juicy.
Cut crunchy vegetables into sticks and offer along with a healthy dip such as pesto, hummous, capsicum dip or eggplant dip. Almost any roasted vegetable can be transformed into a healthy dip. These dips can be used with crackers as well.
Thinly peel (or use a Veggie Twister) vegetables like zucchini, cucumber and carrot to use in quinoa or rice salads, rice paper rolls or vegie pasta.
Frozen peas and corn in a container are often enjoyed by kids. Just pour them straight into a container from the freezer and they will thaw by lunchtime!
Corn on the cob
Hide vegetables in snacks like zucchini slice, savoury muffins or rissoles.
The key nutrients we get from vegetables are vitamin C, folate, beta-carotene, potassium, fibre and water.
Variety is key. Just like adults get bored with eating the same things all the time, so do kids! Just because your child loves something – give it to them too many times and then they’ll never want to eat it again (which then makes your job even harder!) A wide variety of foods will ensure kids stay interested but it also helps them get all the nutrients they need from many different foods. To help with variety, I strongly recommend making larger batches of foods and keeping them in the freezer so you can have many different meal and snack options on rotation between weeks.
Snacks are fun and very important. Including a healthy treat in their lunchboxes will help kids to look forward to the different tastes in their lunchboxes while helping to keep their energy levels and blood glucose levels balanced. Having a wholefood treat that has no added sugar (and lots of added goodness) ensures kids feel like they are getting something special and lessens the comparison to other kids with packaged biscuits, chips or cakes
Gluten, Dairy, Nut and Refined Sugar Free Lunch Box Meal Plan
|Morning Tea||Main Lunch||Fruit||Afternoon tea or Extra snack for active kids|
|Day 1||Banana Bread + Veggie sticks served in a container of hummous or with slices of leg ham wrapped around the vegies||2 x Mini Quiches||Strawberries, blueberries and /or grapes Serve in a ziplock bag (along with vegies if you like) and clamp in the middle with a colourful peg, add eyes and pipe cleaners as feelers and you have a butterfly!||Coconut rough|
|Day 2||Nut Free Toasted Muesli Bites (recipe below) + Boiled egg (change their shapes using Japanese egg molds to make them look cute!)||Coconut chicken and mango salad||Apple Slinky||Raspberry coconut pudding (small serve)|
|Day 3||Coconut rough + Mini quiche + Popcorn||2 Rice Paper Rolls||Fruit Salad Kebab (because kids love anything on a stick!)||Banana Bread|
|Day 4||Chocolate Brownie Bars + Roasted chickpeas (homemade or Chic nuts)||Satay chicken burgers (nut free) with simple salsa||Watermelon and rockmelon||Nut Free Toasted Muesli Bites (recipe below)|
|Day 5||Nut Free Toasted Muesli Bites (recipe below) + Corn on the cob, cherry tomatoes and sliced capsicum||Raspberry coconut pudding||Sliced fruit in jelly (made from Great Lakes Gelatine and sweetened with fruit and made on coconut milk or coconut water)||Mini quiche|
Julie Masci is a practising dietitian and nutritionist, accredited with the Dietitians Association of Australia. She is the director and principal of New Life Nutrition, a Brisbane-based private dietitian practice established in 2009. With Italian blood pumping through her veins, food has always been a major focus in Julie’s life.
Julie works to provide realistic diet and lifestyle advice. She passionately believes every person’s outlook and approach to life can be improved by how they eat. As a result, Julie’s focus is on providing holistic advice aligned with the personal goals and preferences of her clients. Julie’s goal is to educate individuals about the importance of eating real food while never allowing them to feel deprived of any food they love.
With an appreciation of culture and individuality, as well as a contagious enthusiasm for good food, Julie believes everyone should have the opportunity to experience the pleasures of food, while also staying healthy, and looking and feeling great.
Toasted Muesli Bites
- 10 medjool dates, seeds removed
- 1/2 cup desiccated coconut
- 1 tablespoon coconut oil
- 1/2 cup sunflower seeds
- 1/2 cup pumpkin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/2 teaspoon concentrated natural vanilla extract
- Pinch of salt
- Preheat your oven to 175°C or 350 °F and line a tray with baking paper.
- Place the dates and coconut into food processor and blend at high speed until the mixture is broken down and well combined.
- Add the remaining ingredients and blend to roughly chop the seeds, leaving plenty of texture and combine the ingredients.
- Press the mixture firmly into balls and place them onto your baking tray. Bake for 8 – 10 minutes, turning your tray at the half way mark.
- Remove from the oven and leave to cool on the tray for 5 – 10 minutes before moving to a cooling rack.