Back to School – Healthy Lunchboxes

Here we are at that time of the year again. Our kids are venturing out into the world again, back at school. This year more than ever, we might feel a bit apprehensive about it. One way we can continue to support and protect them is to provide a healthy lunch every day.

It can be a challenge to think of different foods to put into the lunchboxes day after day. As parents want to feed our kids with the most nutritious foods possible. But we also need to make it affordable – and attractive to them. There is not much point in creating a super healthy lunch only for it to come home untouched at the end of the school day.

Going back to basics, it is useful to think of what our kids are eating over the whole day. According to Safefood, children’s diets should consist of one third fruit and vegetables, one third starchy foods and one third dairy and protein foods.

1/3 Fruit & Vegetables

A variety of fruit and vegetables is important in the diet as they are packed with vitamins and minerals. Children over 5 are recommended to have 5 portions a day, just like adults. The ‘variety’ part is always mentioned because different types of fruits and vegetables contain different combinations of these micronutrients, and if we eat a variety, we increase our chances of getting all that we need. They are vital to our good health, never more so than now with the threat of Covid-19 they are crucial to supporting the immune system. Eat the rainbow!

Fruit and vegetables also contain fibre, which is important for our gut health, and can help us feel fuller for longer and might prevent hunger pangs and reaching for snacks.

Another important aspect of making sure we provide our kids with their 5 a day is helping them to develop a taste for them. Exposure to fruits and especially vegetables seems to be an effective way to increase the amount they eat. They might refuse it 10 times and eat it the 11th time. Persevere, don’t force it, just provide it and gently encourage.

All kinds of fruits and vegetables count – fresh, frozen, canned (in juice) and dried. Allow them some choices, give them variety and watch their taste buds expand.

1/3 Starchy Foods

Foods like bread, pasta, rice and potatoes are important in children’s diets to provide them with energy.

They also contain vitamins, minerals and fibre. Choose wholegrain often, and vary the types of bread in their lunch – pitta, wrap, soda bread, rolls, etc. Use leftover pasta to make a pasta salad to take to school or try using left over stir-fry in a wrap. Making use of leftovers will help keep the cost down and cut down on food waste.

1/3 Dairy and Protein

Dairy foods like milk, yoghurt and cheese are rich in calcium which is vital to children’s growth and to support bone health. 3 portions a day are recommended for children aged 5-9, and 5 portions a day for children from 9-12 and teenagers. Yoghurts and cheese can be easy additions to the lunch box.

A word of warning on yoghurts though – some can be very high in sugar so check the label.

If you choose dairy free, go for calcium added versions.

Protein foods are what we might call meat and alternatives like chicken, turkey, beef, fish and eggs which all make great sandwich fillings along with some salad. Hardboiled eggs are another easy to eat snack. Beans are also great protein sources and can be added into salad boxes or wraps. Nuts however are restricted in many schools because of allergy risk, but can be a tasty after school snack.

Lunchbox Ideas:

Considering most kids have a short break and a longer break, it makes sense to include a snack size portion plus a lunch size portion.

  • Bottle of water
  • Chicken salad sandwich on wholegrain bread
  • Turkey and cheese slices on multigrain bread
  • Tuna and sweetcorn wrap
  • Mashed egg in pita
  • Fruit scone lightly spread with butter
  • Thin bagel with cheese
  • Crackers and cheese
  • Pasta salad box
  • Apple / orange / pear / plum / banana / grapes / berries / watermelon cubes / kiwi
  • Baby carrots / snack cucumber / sliced peppers / celery with hummus dip
  • Unsweetened yoghurt with berries or granola
  • Cheese cubes
  • Homemade popcorn

Children are more inclined to eat a lunch they have chosen and packed themselves, so allow them that input. If you have a variety of healthy foods in, they can feel that they are making their own choices. Decide not to have high fat, high sugar foods in the house and then they are simply not there to choose from.

And remember diet is just part of the picture. Sleep should be a priority along with at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day.

If we can encourage these good habits, while discouraging bad ones, we are helping them to be at their healthiest and have a strong immune system to help fight off anything that might come their way.  

References

Accessed 31/08/2020

https://www.safefood.net/start/healthy-eating

https://www.hse.ie/eng/about/who/healthwellbeing/our-priority-programmes/heal/healthy-eating-guidelines/

Nekitsing, C., Hetherington, M.M. & Blundell-Birtill, P. Developing Healthy Food Preferences in Preschool Children Through Taste Exposure, Sensory Learning, and Nutrition Education. Curr Obes Rep 7, 60–67 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-018-0297-8

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