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Your guide to easy and healthy school lunches according to a paediatric dietitian and nutritionist

18th January, 2021
Embrace plenty of colour when it comes to the foods in your child’s lunchbox

With back to school time just around the corner, most parents are starting to think about prepping for another year, and one of the key things would have to be school lunches.

Having to pack a school lunch daily can often mean parents are stuck for food ideas or not entirely what to pack in their child’s lunchbox day in and day out. And it can be one of those things that can make the morning rush even more stressful.

To help make it easier I’ve enlisted the help of Sydney-based paediatric dietitian and nutritionist and mum-of-two Karina Savage to share her expertise about all things school lunchboxes. The director of Smart Bite Nutrition is here to help make organising healthy lunches this year a stress-free affair.

What types of foods should a healthy school lunch comprise of? 
  • Slow release (low GI) carbohydrates “[This will] provide a sustained release of energy into the blood stream over the day – this helps to keep blood sugar levels stable which supports good concentration and learning, together with happier mood at pick up! Grainy bread and crackers, fruit, homemade baked goods such as a muesli slice and brownie, which are all good options.”
  • Plant foods “Include plenty of colour and always try to put at least two different coloured vegies into the lunch box.”
  • Quality protein “Shredded chicken, boiled or mashed egg, tuna and legumes such as baked beans or hommus are all good options here. Stay away from processed meats where possible.”
  • Good fats “Usually nuts aren’t allowed [at school], so our go-to here is seeds such as sunflower, pepita or incorporating sunflower (tahini), linseed and chia into baked goods. Avocado is another great option providing a good source of healthy fats.”

What are some great foods to include in lunchboxes to ensure satiety and boost energy?

  • Grainy bread sandwich (can be as simple as Vegemite or raw honey)
  • Grainy crackers with cheese/vegemite.
  • My black bean brownie 
  • Fresh fruit
  • Chopped vegies
  • Grainy crackers and hommus
Do parents need to tweak what they include in lunch boxes according to age?

“Children typically need similar types of food going into the lunch box throughout primary school. As they get older, children may require more food in the lunch box (eg more carbs) if they are really active, however many will struggle to finish their lunch box as they are “too busy” running around with their friends. They will often make up for this at afternoon tea time.

As children move through primary school, they may start to refuse more of the healthier lunch box snacks. As parents, have the confidence to be consistent and stick to your guns – always including plenty of plant foods in the lunch box daily.

With home baked goods, I’ve found with my own children, that I’ve had to add a little more sugar into some recipes to make sure they eat them. In my opinion, this is OK, as I know my children will still be getting much more nutrition compared to giving them a supermarket baked item or packaged product—which are usually much lower in nutrition.”

What are some common mistakes parents make when it comes to packing their kids’ lunches?

“Giving in easily to pester power and including too much of the processed packaged foods such as Shapes, biscuits etc. Kids often love these snacks as they usually taste great, however these products are usually high in salt and very low in fibre. 

Most of us are in the same situation here and it can be exhausting as parents, when the healthy food comes home every day.  We need to have the resilience to keep offering the good food, teaching our children about the balance of foods — the sometimes foods and the everyday healthier foods. Popcorn or dried legumes are much better packaged option compared to many of the packaged crisps/Shapes products.”

Incorporate a variety of different vegetables into lunchboxes

If a child will only eat a limited amount of foods for lunch, what are some ways a parent can help broaden their food repertoire?

“Don’t stress too much if their intake is healthy—if your child isn’t too fussed about the lack of variety from week to week, don’t worry. As long as they have a balance of protein, carbs and plant foods in their lunch box, you are doing well. You can always balance out the day at other meals and snacks such as breakfast and dinner.

Remember it’s a nutritionally balanced week rather than day. 

For some more ideas about healthy lunch box additions, check out my lunch box ideas sheet here.”   

What are your tips for making school lunches more exciting?

“I think it can be really hard sometimes to please kids with school lunch boxes and as busy parents we need to take the pressure of ourselves. School lunches don’t always have to be “instagrammable”, they just have to be as balanced as possible with some good quality contents. 

To improve acceptance of food, a good tip is to bake some options with the kids on the weekends – such as muffins, brownies, bliss balls etc and work out what they like/don’t like. You can then be more confident of putting those preferred baked goods into the lunch box.

Experimenting with various dips can be fun – such as hommus, beetroot, guacamole and cheese dips. These can be included with raw vegies and crackers in the lunch box. Home made pizzas can be another good option that children can be involved in creating the night before.”

Most parents have to deal with the mad school rush in the morning. What are some of your time-saving tricks for creating a healthy school lunch every day? 

  • Make sure lunch boxes are clean and ready to go the night before – you may even wish to include a little secret message/note which will make them smile when they open it the following day.
  • Pack what you can the night before – fresh fruit, popcorn, dried legumes, muffin, homemade brownie or cookies placed in plastic containers. Muffins and cake can also be frozen in individual portions and popped in the lunch box in the morning.
  • Some parents also pre-chop vegies and cheese, which can also be placed in the lunch box and popped in the fridge overnight
  • Use leftovers – you may consider doubling the batch at dinner time and using some for leftovers the next day. These can be sent cold with an ice pack or warm in a thermos.
  • Freeze yoghurt pouches and small containers of dip so that you can pull out of freezer in the morning and they will stay cold until eaten.

For more of Karina’s tips, follow her on Instagram, Facebook or check out her website.