Kids’ lunch boxes. Ever wondered if you’re getting the contents absolutely right, or do you have a sneaking suspicion you’re adding too many treats and snacks and not enough good nutrition? Or are you just tired of getting most of your kids’ lunch back at the end of the school day because they just don’t eat what you’ve made them? As nutritionist Fleur Key explains, packing the perfect lunchbox for your child’s day at school needn’t be hard if you follow these simple steps.
Lunch is such an important time in a child’s day at nursery or school. It’s not only the time when they get to refuel from a tiring morning, but also an opportunity to hang out with their friends and relax a little.
But if you’ve ever had the experience of getting most of your child’s lunch back again at the end of the day you’ll know that getting the contents of your child’s lunchbox right can be tricky. You want just the right balance of good nutrition and fun to keep things interesting. Here is my simple formula for creating the perfect nutritious lunchbox.
The right lunchbox makes all the difference. The perfect box keeps your child’s packed lunch cool and secure without, most importantly, any leakages. While there are many different types of lunchbox on the market, I love Sistema products because they are so well-designed and also because they don’t contain potentially harmful chemicals, Phthalate or BPA, found in many plastic products.
My favourite is this Triple Split Lunch Box; it’s the perfect size for both a child’s or adult’s lunch and it’s really easy to clean. Plus it comes with its own yoghurt pot too.
Ice packs are also an essential item to ensure lunch stays cool. I use Polar Gear Animal Ice Packs – they’re small enough to fit in a standard box, and they’re fun and functional. Just pop them in the freezer overnight so they’re lunchbox ready in the morning.
The perfect nutritionally-balanced kids’ lunchbox has the right amount of carbohydrates, protein, dairy, vegetables, fruit and a non-sugary drink. A snack is optional but is a nice treat to make lunchtime fun.
Carbohydrates should make up roughly a third of your child’s whole lunch to provide adequate energy to fuel him or her through school and all the way to dinner time.
The typical lunchbox provides starchy carbohydrates in the form of sandwich bread but there are other ways to deliver carbs and keep it fun and interesting into the bargain. To start you can choose a different kind of bread like pitta, bagels or wraps. Or skip the bread entirely and go for pasta, rice, potatoes or couscous.
Include a source of protein such as meat, fish, egg, beans or lentils. The body needs protein to build and repair cells and since it cannot be stored by the body, we need it every day. Try something different to thin-sliced ham and choose protein-rich tinned red salmon, or mashed boiled egg mixed with plain yoghurt, chopped cucumber and a sprinkle of paprika. Or use leftover roast chicken and make a healthy chicken Caesar salad wrap.
Dairy such as milk, cheese and yoghurt give the growing body calcium and vitamin D for strong bones, so, unless your child is lactose-intolerant of course, then include some in the lunchbox in the form of a wedge of cheese (around 30g), a drink of milk (try this delicious Lunchbox Banana and Berry Milkshake) or yoghurt.
Be warned though, all yoghurts are not created equal; some contain high levels of sugar, which can lead to tooth decay, weight gain and a general liking for sweet foods. Having shopped around, my favourite is Yeo Valley natural yoghurt as it doesn’t contain any added sugar or preservatives so I can simply add my own flavours.
For children with milk allergies there are a number of dairy free alternatives, such as soy-based cheese, oat milk or coconut yoghurt, although care must be taken as some products can contain high amounts of sugar. As a tip, use the Yeo Valley natural yoghurt nutrition label as a guide for sugar quantities.
A balanced lunch should always contain vegetables as their micronutrient content is essential to the body.
Cherry tomatoes lend themselves perfectly to a child’s lunchbox as they are already bite-sized (saves time on chopping too!). However, there are endless possibilities and combinations to keep packed lunches interesting.
Aim to include two portions of different-coloured vegetables (40g for each portion), such as tomatoes and yellow pepper or carrot and mange tout.
If your child is not an adventurous eater, try allowing them to choose their own vegetables or serve with a dip to gently encourage them to try different tastes.
My kids love a yoghurt and mint dip I make by finely chopping a mint leaf into about 20g of yoghurt. Alternatively use hummus or a mixture of mayonnaise and ketchup if they prefer.
Fruit provides the body with antioxidants, which fight against the damage caused to cells in everyday life. It also contains fibre so aim to include at least one portion in a packed lunch. Fruit you’ve added to yoghurt as in my Healthy Lunchbox Tip above counts as one portion, but you can easily up this to two portions by adding a banana, halved grapes, or peeled and sliced kiwi fruit. Fruit provides another opportunity to make lunch even more visually-appealing because of all the wonderful colours you can choose, so be bold and offer different-coloured fruits, which will also contain different nutrients.
Most packed lunches I’ve seen contain some sort of supermarket-bought snack item which are most often marketed to children. Yet these snacks are often high in calories, sugar and fat but nutrient poor. If you’ve got time to bake a batch of homemade cupcakes, biscuits or savoury snacks at the weekend, you can freeze them and then pull one out on the morning to defrost in time for lunch. When time is short, a really good and healthy alternative is popcorn that you pop at home (popping corn is cheap and kids love popping their own). You can then add your own flavourings so you control the level of sweetness.
Water is always the best choice of drink for a child’s packed lunch (again a low-cost item). However, if your child is used to drinking juice, try adding slices of orange or lemon to flavour plain water, as well as making it looking pretty!
Fruit juices contain high levels of sugar which cause tooth decay. If your child won’t drink anything else, try diluting the juice a little at a time over the course of a few days to get them used to a less sweet taste.
The key to keeping packed lunches fun and interesting is to shake things up a little – that means not making the same lunches day in, day out. Try serving a fruit your child has never tried before. Or, if you have time, once in a while cut sandwiches into different shapes with cookie cutters.
With the warm weather coming, a great way to shake things up is by including a homemade milkshake. By making it at home with just a few quality ingredients you instantly up the nutrition factor of your child’s lunch, without any colours or preservatives.
Why not try my LunchBox Banana and Berry Milkshake? Not only does it taste great but it contains a whole range of nutrients to promote healthy growth, boost immunity and protect cells from damage caused by everyday life. I’m a big fan of making life easier for myself, so I make a batch of two or three of these at a time and keep them in the freezer to simply pop into the packed lunch box when I get up in the morning. They will also keep the rest of lunch cool all morning!
The following recipe makes enough for 1 serving.
Fleur Key is a fully-qualified nutritionist and working mum of two who knows just how hard it is juggling kids, work and trying to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Fleur also works in the school catering field, where she champions children exploring healthy foods in a fun and relaxed environment as well as offering informative nutrition talks and one to one consultations. Fleur writes on her own blog The Packed Lunch Diaries. Read Fleur’s bio in our About page.
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