Back to school time is looming. Along with new books and uniforms the old school lunch box will be dusted off and a collective sigh can be heard as parents of fussy eaters everywhere, from junior infants to teens try to figure out what to fill it with. Like a New Year resolution, we all think this year lunches will fun be and healthy before defaulting to the old reliables by October.
Here are some tips that may help to shake off old habits and hopefully make life a little easier in the long run.
When it comes to the main event we can all picture that generic cheese and ham sandwich that greeted us daily on opening the school lunch box. While sandwiches are by definition convenient portable meal they can just become so….boring!
- Bread - Variety is the key...pitta, wraps, sliced pan, soda bread, rolls, crackers...just keep them guessing. The important thing is to buy the best quality you can afford, think wholemeal and read the labels - this is their main carbohydrate fuel of the school day. Processed white sliced pan is high in salt and sugar and low in fibre and while most kids love it (who would blame them with that ingredient list) even the simplest palate enjoys a little change once in a while. So experiment…most kids are more adventurous than we give them credit for.
- Fillings – again a little variatio goes a long way. It is easy to reach for that same packet of ham and ‘easy singles’ in the supermarket each time. The possibilities are endless but here are a few suggestions:
…Banana with peanut or almond butter, bagel with cream cheese and grapes, grated carrot with cheese and hummus in a wrap. Add pear or apple to a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. Classic egg salad, tuna and sweetcorn, turkey with cheese and avocado, mozzerella and pesto….use your (or your kids) imagination.
- Alternatives - Why not ditch the sandwich altogether once in a while. By just adding a fork you can get creative with left overs.. cold pasta, noodles, roast chicken, even cold pizza can go down a treat. In the winter a thermos of soup can be a welcome warm up.
Think outside the box! If your kids are fans, falafel or a peeled hard boiled egg make a great bite sized savoury meal.
- Fruit – everyone gets sick of apples and bananas. Children are often attracted by size and colour. Invest in some small Tupperware containers – easy to fill with blueberries, strawberries, grapes, teach them how to eat a kiwi like an egg with a spoon, mandarins when in season are perfectly child sized.
- Vegetables - many kids will enjoy raw vegetables while turning their nose up at their cooked counterparts. Why not team a small portion of hummus or another favourite dip with sticks of brightly coloured pepper, carrot or cucumber. Cherry tomatoes or gerkins can be a nice a treat on the side instead of a soggy tomato slice in a sandwich.
- Children will enjoy snacking on nuts and dried fruit – raisins, apricots, nuts and seeds all make a naturally sweet and nutritious snack filled with protein and fibre. Again no need to buy pre- packaged, instead buy in bulk and refill your own small containers.
- Treats - Home made museli bars, flapjacks, scones, fruit muffins or banana bread– make a great lunch box treat, and they freeze well. Or go ‘old school’ with a fig roll! There are some great pre-packaged museli bars available if baking is not your forte but read the labels carefully as some products may be high in sugar and salt and although labelled as ‘healthy’ can contain as many calories as a chocolate bar.
- Smoothies – you may not have time to make a batch everyday but as an occasional treat a smoothie is a great way for children to reach their 5 a day and can be made even more nutritious by adding yogurt, nut butter or some oats to the blender. Ideal for kids who are not great breakfast eaters.
- Dairy - Remember the importance of dairy for growing bones and muscles – milk, yogurts and cheese are all ideal lunch box fillers. Here it is important to remember to buy quality products. Avoid flavoured milks, along with many of the branded yoghurts targeted at children, they are full of sugar – some as much as a fizzy drink. If unsure read the labels. In general if the ingredient list is short, with a real fruit base and few additives or colouring you are on the right path.
- Cheese is a great food for kids but unfortunately many experience it only in its highly processed / high salt forms – avoid ‘plastic’ processed children’s snack cheeses when possible. If time is of the essence good quality cheddar etc can be bought pre sliced or simple cut of a finger of your favourite cheese and pop it in a small tub. If kids are fussy try it grated in a wrap, or added to pasta,or as a cold toasted cheese sandwich (almost as good as left over pizza!)
- When it comes to drinks keep it simple- milk or water are best. Even some of the fruit juice drinks marketed for kids can be very high in sugar and bad for little teeth. Look for the sugar content on packaging. 4g is about 1 teaspoon as a rough guide...would you add that to their glass of water?
If all this seems a bit too much like hard work and your kids, like most normal ones, are a bit on the fussy side don’t just give up. Growing brains and bodies need quality fuel to learn and have fun.
Companies make a lot of money selling conveniently packaged, high sugar, high salt lunch foods to busy parents. Why not save yourself a few quid and give your kid’s health a boost by trying the alternative for a month.
Get Kitted Out!
It doesn’t have to cost the earth. A set of Tupperware in various sizes for a fiver (IKEA do a great one!), a good refillable water bottle and a bit of imagination in the supermarket is all that is needed. Be creative with left overs. And when time is short – as it often is for busy families…read the labels. You will soon recognise a few favourite healthy products to make life easier and these can then be popped in the lunch box guilt free. Little tummies will thank you for it!