Dietitian's back-to-school lunchbox tips

As a parent there are few things more frustrating than packing a lunch for your child to take to school, only to find it squashed and mouldy at the bottom of their school bag a week later.

It can be challenging to strike the balance between a healthy and an enticing lunch box, but there are ways to ensure the food you send with your child doesn’t make the round trip home.

Accredited practising dietitian Jane O’Shea, from Diet Effects in Warrawong, says it is important to add variety to a lunch box, to keep it interesting for both the chef and the mini reviewer.

She says including foods of different colours, textures and shapes will encourage kids to try, and get used to, eating different things.

An ideal lunch box for a primary school student includes carbohydrates for energy, a protein source such as cold meat or cheese to aid with growth, some dairy such as a low-fat milk drink to create strong bones, and fruit and vegetables.

Dietitian Jane O’Shea. Picture: ANDY ZAKELI

Deciding how much food to pack your child can be difficult, but ensuring they have enough for both recess and lunch is key. Many schools also set aside a few minutes in class for students to ‘‘munch and crunch’’ on fruit and vegetables, so celery or carrot sticks, nashi slices or grapes are ideal as they don’t create waste.

‘‘ Bearing in mind that their tummies are quite small, they need energy-dense food so they can eat a small amount that delivers good energy,’’ O’Shea says.

Repetition breeds boredom, so parents sick of making the same Vegemite and cheese sandwich, crusts off, day after day, can use sandwiches to sneak more vegetables into their child’s diet.

Adding vegetables that won’t go soggy, such as tomatoes especially grown to work well on bread, or mixing corn kernels in with a cream cheese spread will ensure your child gets the nutrients they need.

‘‘Even beetroot, I know this sounds a bit scary to put in a lunch box, but beetroot mixed with cream cheese makes a nice spread, and it’s pink and colourful,’’ adds O’Shea.

She also suggests filling combinations such as grated carrot, sultanas and cream cheese; tomato, cheese and cold meat, and, for the more adventurous littlies, tuna mixed with sweet corn on wholemeal or wholegrain bread slices, rolls or wraps.

While it can be tempting to add a small chocolate or a packet of chips to the mix, O’Shea instead recommends changing the idea of what a ‘‘treat’’ is.

‘‘It could instead be strawberries, a slice of mango rather than a chocolate; it could be a little bag of popcorn or a homemade mini muffin as a treat,’’ she says.

 ‘‘Keep party foods for parties and body and brain building food for school.’’

While it is harder to control what your child buys at the canteen when given a few dollars to source their own lunch, O’Shea says simply encouraging them to choose healthier options  – of which there are probably a stack  – can work wonders.

If you’re sick of making the same old sandwiches, then your kids are also probably sick of eating them. Try mixing it up and adding colour.Picture: CATHERINE YEULET

Quick lunch box tips

• Use a cooler bag, or add a frozen ice container to your child’s lunch box to keep food cool and protect products like low-fat yoghurt or cheese slices  during the day.

• Water is the best drink a child can take to school. While a low-fat milk drink  adds an extra serve of dairy during the day, all kids should have a drink bottle filled with water. Look for brightly coloured or patterned bottles with parts that can be frozen to keep the drink cool during the day. Juice poppers should only be an occasional treat.

• Most schools have policies against children bringing nuts to school to protect kids with a nut allergy, so check the ingredients list on any snacks before you buy.  Steer clear of peanut butter sandwiches, and remind your kids to wash their hands after they eat to remove any food traces.

• Get your children involved in choosing and packing what they take for recess and lunch. Start small by making them responsible for selecting what fruit they want to eat during the week, or put them in charge of filling up their drink bottle each morning.

• Parents stumped for inspiration on what to put in that brightly coloured box can even turn to apps full of ideas, such as free downloads Kids Lunch Box Diet Recipes and Healthy Snacks For Kids.

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