Top tips for healthy lunchboxes

Dr. Joanna McMillan shares her advice on creating healthy lunchboxes for your kids.

With our kids back to school this week, you may be breathing a sigh of relief or missing their noise and chatter around the house. But one commonality I hear from all parents is stress over what on earth to put in their lunchboxes.

On the first day back for my kids I tweeted what I had packed for their lunch – a turkey & avocado sandwich on Burgen, a Macro Wholegrain fruit bar, a sliced apple and a yoghurt – only to receive a tweet back from a man who said if his niece was given this she wouldn’t eat a thing and would come home hungry!

It concerns me enormously that what to me is healthy, normal food is viewed by many parents and their kids as un-kid friendly. Instead many lunchboxes are filled with white processed bread with vegemite, salty processed meats, sugar-laden lollies, biscuits and treats and fruit products claiming to be close to 100% fruit. Don’t be fooled, these are not the same as a whole piece of fruit. If we continually pander to what the easiest foods our kids will eat, we set them up for a lifetime of bad eating and the chronic diseases that plague us will follow.

The United Nations have declared that the big three factors that affect these non-communicable diseases are alcohol, smoking and diet. The first two are heavily regulated, but we don’t give nearly as much attention to the third.

As parents what I urge you to realise is that what you feed your children is not just about weight control. It is also about how you are setting them up metabolically for the future. They may not be overweight now, but feed them a diet of processed food, high in refined starch, added sugars, low fibre and low in nutrients and you increase their risk of heart disease, cancers and diabetes, whether or not they become overweight. What you put in their lunchbox day-to-day matters, both acutely (affecting their concentration and performance at school) and chronically with regard to their health. Lead by example and improve the entire family’s eating habits and I promise you it will rub off on the kids.

Here are my six steps to a healthy lunchbox:

1. Choose a smart carb.
These are the carb-rich foods that are slowly absorbed, giving your child a steady stream of glucose to feed his/her brain. They help them to concentrate in the classroom and give them the energy to run around during playtime. Options include wholegrain breads and wraps for sandwiches, wholegrain or white pasta (both are low GI but wholegrains have more fibre, if you can convince the kids), brown rice or quinoa made up into a salad.

2. Add a protein-rich food.
Rather than always relying on packaged processed meats, try poaching chicken breasts and keeping sliced in zip lock bags in the fridge, or cooking extra meat or salmon the night before and using in sandwiches or salads. Favourite sandwich fillings in our house include shredded chicken & grated apple in olive oil mayo, tuna sweetcorn and beans in mayo, ham (off the bone better) and cream cheese, turkey & avocado, hard boiled egg & mayo, or cheese & grated carrot.

We should not be teaching our children that eating a sweet treat at the end of every meal is necessary. I spend so much time undoing these bad habits in adults, yet we think nothing of it with our kids! 

3. Add vegies and fruit.
My kids like many do not like salad, especially leafy greens in their sandwiches so don’t stress about it. As they get older they will be more likely to try these things, but the crucial point is to make sure the other ingredients are good quality foods. Try to add some sort of fruit and/or veggies in whatever form you can. Grated carrot, sliced cucumber, roast veggies mixed through pasta or brown rice, or raw veggie sticks and cherry tomatoes are all good options.

Then add a piece of fruit. Make it easy for your child to eat and it’s more likely they will. I slice apples and put them into ziplock bags, peel their oranges or give them a tub of berries or grapes. A banana holder is a great way to ensure the banana doesn’t turn to mush by lunchtime. Little packs of fruit in natural juice are also a fine stand in for when you have run out of fresh.

4. Add a dairy food.
Kids have high requirements for calcium and dairy foods are hard to beat for this mineral. I love the drinking yoghurt packs and you can freeze these. Add them frozen to the lunchbox and it helps keep everything cold. Babybel, cheese sticks and other individual cheese portions are perfect. If your child can’t have dairy use calcium-fortified dairy alternatives.

5. Add a healthy snack bar of some sort for recess.
Most schools are nut free so you need to check the ingredients list of commercial bars. For the dedicated there is no doubt that homemade bars and muffins are the best option, but for most of us there is no doubt the convenience of some ready bought bars wins out.

6. Finally don’t forget the bottle of water.
Never give your child soft drink, fruit juice or flavoured milk regularly for school. These are laden with sugar and will get them out of the habit of simply drinking water. If all the kids have water this is the norm and no one thinks anything of it.

Finally a word on treats. Some parents feel they like to put a little treat in their child’s lunchbox. Personally I think this creates problems as the other kids want the same, and you run the risk of your child filling up on the wrong things before they eat the healthy food. I also think we should not be teaching our children that eating a sweet treat at the end of every meal is necessary. I spend so much time undoing these bad habits in adults, yet we think nothing of it with our kids! They don’t need to have sweet things every day, and they should be taught to think of the yoghurt and fruit as their sweet treats. So save the biccies, lollies and chocolate for separate occasions.

twitter Follow Dr. Joanna on Twitter: @joannanutrition

facebook Follow Dr. Joanna on Facebook: drjoannamcmillan