Term three is back and the last thing on parents’ minds is wanting to deal with a fussy eater and then worrying that their child isn’t meeting the daily required nutrients.
But, no matter how healthy a child’s lunch can be, there’s no nutritional value if it doesn’t get eaten.
A topic known all too well for dietitian and mother of a two-year-old, Marissa Samuelson said her daughter is acting as a “typical toddler”, asserting her independence around food.
“Most parents would be aware that it is important to include a range of foods from the five food groups: fruit, vegetables, dairy, meats and alternatives, grains in their kid’s lunchbox,” she said.
“I believe there is also nothing wrong with including a treat food as well - children need to be taught that food is morally neutral (not good or bad) – this is important in helping children to develop a good relationship with food and avoid dieting in future.
“So a good variety and range of foods are important, for example food from each food group and maybe a treat would be a good guide and this helps to teach kids about variety as well as enjoyment of food.”
Ms Samuelson acknowledged the challenges of helping parents packing a lunchbox and finding healthy foods that are convenient and quick to prepare and that kids will actually eat.
“Try pre-preparing foods in bulk ahead of time such as sandwiches and muffins,” she said.
Here are Ms Samuelson’s top tips to help parents find healthy foods that are convenient and quick to prepare, making the perfect school lunchbox:
- Pre-preparing foods in bulk ahead of time such as sandwiches or muffins. Prepping a week’s worth of plain sandwiches with fillings like spreads, ham or cheese (salad doesn’t work so well) and then freezing them is handy because then you can just pull them out of the fridge on the morning of school/child care and it will be defrosted by the time lunch comes around.
- Have a chat with the school about any shared meal breaks that children participate in e.g. some schools have a fruit break. The idea behind this is that the influence of peers on children’s intake is quite strong – kids are more likely to eat foods that other kids are eating – so that all children are then eating similar foods and they are more likely to eat the food.
- Keeping food fresh and at the appropriate temperature in the lunchbox is important from a food safety point of view and kids are more likely to eat what’s in the lunch box as it remains appealing. You can buy ice bricks to put into lunchboxes or some lunchboxes come with accessories to help keep items cool. A less expensive option is to include a frozen drink to keep items cool. My tendency is not to provide anything that might be at higher risk for bacteria to grow within them (such as foods that would normally be in the fridge), especially if the bag is sitting in the sun all day. I would rather save offering these foods until they get home.
- Bento boxes (lunchboxes with small compartments) seem to be pretty popular at the moment. You don’t have to buy an expensive one, you can make your own version using divided lunch boxes which are fairly available from major retailers. There are some great people on Instagram and Facebook who often post ideas about things to put in these sorts of lunchboxes to keep you inspired over the school term.
- Kids may be more likely to eat foods chopped up than whole. So finger food versions can often be more attractive – a great idea I’ve heard recently is after chopping up an apple, put it back together again and tie it up with string so it does not go brown over the day. You could also chop up some extra foods while you are preparing your evening meal to put in the kids lunchbox. So if your child likes veggie sticks you could chop some extra and put them in the lunchbox for the next day.
- Getting kids involved (depending on their age and ability) in shopping for food, preparing food and even cooking foods at night as a way to help kids feel more empowered in food choice and for kids to explore a variety of tastes – repeated exposure to new foods is important for kids to accept new foods into their food repertoire. Another way to get kids to increase the variety of foods they eat is to include foods that your child enjoys plus one new one in the lunchbox. You can also try this approach at meals at home.
Like Ms Samuelson, Wagga nutritionist Dianne Wintle said many food industries are trying to trick parents into “ideal lunchbox” packets.
“They are marketing packets of little chips and biscuits as being close to healthy, and this can be misleading to parents especially those of lower economic standards,” Ms Wintle said.
“A child’s lunchbox doesn’t need to have much more than a sandwich, a piece of fruit, a container of carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, celery sticks and blueberries.”
Keeping the lunchbox engaging for children in the hopes it will last throughout the term, Ms Wintle said incorporating some creative elements into lunchboxes may be the answer.
“Including vegetables and fruit in a variety of colours; cherry tomatoes come in red, yellow and orange and sandwiches could be cut in different shapes,” she said.
For more information visit the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, which provides practical advice about the food groups and the amounts children of different ages need to eat.