The start of another school year signals a reminder to mums of the need to get back into grind of preparing a tasty, appealing and nutritious school lunch, five days a week for hungry, growing children. Unfortunately, despite the very best intentions, all too often sandwiches and fresh fruit are returned squashed in the bottom of school bags leaving parents in despair and children potentially not getting all of the nutrition they require.
Primary school aged children eat up to a 1/3 of their daily kilo joule requirements while they are at school, so it is worth making sure that you get the balance right. Unfortunately research available suggests that we still have a little way to go when it comes to getting the lunchbox food balance right. Data collected on the lunchbox contents of over fifteen hundred primary school aged children in Victoria found that on average children had three packaged snack foods such as potato chips and muesli bars in their lunchbox each day. Furthermore, researchers recently found that after looking into the lunchboxes of 170 lunchboxes of first grade children that 72 per cent of students had no vegetables or salad in their lunch box, 24 per cent had less than one serve of fruit and only 34 per cent had one or more pieces of fruit packed in their schoolbag. This research also found that up to 77 per cent of students had one or more snack foods such as chocolate, chips or cake. And 48 per cent had their total recommended daily amount of junk food - one to two small serves a day - just in their lunch box.
Packaged snacks such as cheese and dip snack packs, muesli bars, fruit twists and straps, potato chips and biscuit dippers are often full of fat and highly processed carbohydrates but tend to offer little in the way of nutrition. Too many of these snacks can mean that children are receiving many empty kilojoules without the amounts of calcium, fibre, iron and protein that they need for optimal growth and development.
What is good lunchbox nutrition?
A nutritionally balanced lunchbox can be divided into four core sections: low glycaemic index carbohydrates for energy, proteins for nutrition and fullness, fruit for fibre and vitamins and a snack food that has some nutritional benefit. Most importantly, busy children need plenty of water for optimal hydration, particularly in the warmer months when small children are at high risk of dehydration.
Wholegrain carbohydrates for energy:
Forget the idea of plain soggy bread - the vast variety of wrap and flat breads, grain bread rolls, thick crusty bread, crackers and high fibre loaves available means that a traditional sandwich can remain fresh and tasty until lunchtime. Always aim for either wholegrain varieties of bread or if you have a white bread fan, try the wrap or Mountain style breads that kids love. Something to keep in mind if you have children who constantly reject grain varieties of bread is that recent research has shown that if a range of breads with high grain contents are gradually introduce into lunchboxes, the kids do not even notice – so the secret is to not tell them or ask them what they want! Protein rich sandwich fillings include tuna, lean ham, chicken or turkey or hard boiled eggs are ideal as they provide a range of vital nutrients including iron. Protein based fillings also help to slow the rate in which sandwiches are digested, supporting optimal concentration and energy for the entire school day.
TIP: Remember, children often prefer simple sandwich filling to more elaborate concoctions so try not to be offended if they reject your mix of lamb, hummus and roasted vegetables instead asking for plain ham or a simple spread OR
If you don’t like that one
Try mixing bread types for sandwiches with one slice of high fibre white and one slice of grain
In sandwich negotiations with children, try offering their choice once each week and maintaining a mix of salad and protein on the other school days
Fresh fruit is always preferable to dried, fruit sticks or juice as it contains fewer kilojoules, more fibre and teaches children the importance of eating fresh food.
If you are worried about it getting bruised, stick to hard fruits such as apples or nectarines or pack a small container filled with berries, grapes or melon pieces. If you find that no matter what the fruit always comes home, try cutting it up and serving with low fat ice-cream or yogurt after school.
Protein is the nutrient that tends to be missed in school lunchboxes and is often replaced with extra fruit, juice or more snacks. Protein rich foods including low fat dairy provides calcium and a number of other key nutrients including magnesium and phosphorous which all growing children need daily. Recent research commission by dairy Australia found that up to 84% of school aged children were not consuming the recommended number of dairy serves each day and hence school lunchboxes offer a perfect opportunity to boost up these nutrients in their kids diets. Great protein rich lunchbox fillers include cheese sticks, yogurt tubes; milk protein based snacks bars and flavoured milk poppers are popular with children and are also low GI, which helps to keep kids fuller for longer after eating them.
TIP: If you are worried about food safety and using meats on sandwiches, try freezing the sandwich the night before or keep a small popper of frozen water in the lunchbox to keep the food cool. Alternatively check out the cooler style lunchboxes, which are popular during the summer months.
Busy, growing bodies do need energy but they need good quality energy and many processed snack and muesli bars available do not contain a lot of nutrition for many kilojoules. While children do not necessarily need packaged snack foods, not providing them may see them start to swap their lunchbox contents for other, more appealing options and hence providing a limited amount of snack food may prevent the swapping issue so, aim to provide just one packaged muesli or snack bar in your child’s lunchbox each day and try and choose options that have < 400kJ. Wholegrain and dairy based snack bars are more nutritious options.
TIP: Snack Food Checklist
<400kJ per serve
Protein – 3-5g per bar
Total carbohydrate - <20g per bar
Contain wholegrains, are low GI or have calcium
Water should always be the drink of choice for children. Fruit juice, soft drinks, sports drinks and cordials are high in sugar and are not appropriate everyday drinks for children. In fact, a recent review has suggested that children drink no more than two sweetened drinks each week, which includes fruit juice, to help prevent childhood obesity.
TIP: Freeze water bottles to help keep the rest of the lunchbox cool during the warmer months. Children will also be more likely to drink water when it is cold.
My son loves going to the canteen, how often should I let him have canteen options for his lunch?
All schoolchildren love the canteen as the food is fresh and it offer an interesting change from their day to day lunchboxes. If you pack a healthy lunchbox most days, once each week or fortnight is a reasonable number of canteen visits and try and encourage your child to make good choices like what? and avoid fatty pies, chips and cheesy pastas and pizza pockets.
What about treats?
If you pack too boring a lunchbox you run the risk of your child swapping their food with other children, and if you pack too many treats, it means there is less chance your child will eat the good stuff. There is nothing wrong with including a small treat such as a small packet of chips or fun size chocolate in the lunchbox occasionally, but limit it to just once each week and keep portions small.