In response to recent confusion around what we should be putting in our children’s lunchboxes, Mikki Williden explains why it’s time to re-imagine them.
It’s so important that children get optimal levels of dietary energy from food to ensure they have enough fuel to get them from breakfast to dinner. However, it’s not just carbohydrates, proteins and fats that they need. A lot of people think that because children run around all day it doesn’t matter what they eat. Far from it; because they run around all day and have high energy requirements, it’s even more important to make sure they’ve got nutritious options at hand.
Yes, adequate kilojoules are necessary for growth and development, but children need the micronutrients present in wholefood sources because they act as catalysts and messengers that signal growth and development to occur.
In addition, they can play an antioxidant role and help protect the tissue that already exists. Unfortunately the modern "convenient'' diet doesn't always lend itself to these types of foods — they contain higher calories (and "energy'') for sure, but they tend to be lower in those nutrients (iron, zinc, B vitamins, iodine, folate, magnesium...) that support brain and musculoskeletal health.
Though some processed foods have these nutrients added back in, few would disagree that the best source of nutrients is found where they exist naturally, and not what's been added back in to a packaged food.
It’s really easy to throw together a child’s lunch that contains a sandwich, a piece of fruit and some packaged treats or snacks. Particularly because you can be confident they will like it and anything that comes home unwrapped can be put in again the next day.
However, this isn't necessarily going to be enough to maintain the energy levels, the concentration span and the happy disposition that they would have if their lunch was "real food''. Lunches like these are typically geared towards processed refined carbohydrates, and lower in protein, good sources of fat, and essential micronutrients — wreaking havoc with your children's blood sugar and energy levels, particularly later in the day. Coming home tired and cranky at 4pm is not an inevitable part of a school day. We often choose these pre-packaged foods because that's what the child has said they like, however it's not doing their learning any good.
Think about it: how good do you feel when you know you’ve eaten to optimise your mood, energy and appetite? Why would you want to feed your children any different?
Often the challenge is getting your children to expand their options beyond the brightly coloured packets of potato chips all their friends are eating. Couple that with the myriad soundbites we hear about what’s "good’' and it’s no wonder some parents toss dietary changes in the too-hard basket, particularly if there are no physical signs of poor health.
However, with a bit of perseverance, the benefits are worth it. A diet rich in micronutrients that provides plenty of dietary energy has known benefits for mood, behaviour, sleep, concentration and energy levels. This will ensure you are optimising growth and development and your children are making the most of their learning environment.
Hopefully that’s reason enough to give you motivation to try some of the tactics below and re-imagine the lunchbox. You don’t have to ditch the sandwiches entirely.
1. If it's not there, they won't eat it.
2. There is a natural food lag whereby children take a while to adjust to a particular food. (Adults are the same; few people were born loving olives or goat's cheese.) Research suggests that it takes around 10 different eating opportunities for a child to become familiar and then begin to enjoy a food.
3. Lead by example. Particularly when children are young, siblings, parents and caregivers are the main influencers of their diet, therefore what you do will impact on their likes and dislikes.
4. Involve them in the planning process. Give them a choice out of the options you'd be happy for them have (such as cheese slices, homemade muffins/loaves, fruit, salami sticks) so they have the final decision on what is going in their lunchboxes.
5. Encourage them to help make some home-baked treats. Yes, they are treats, but a much better option than store-bought ones. Many baked treats are still unnecessarily high in sugar so try reducing by one-third (to start) the amount of sugar that's in these foods and talk to your children about why it's good to do this.
6. Arm yourself with snaplock bags (can be reused), plastic containers, a lunchbox with compartments and maybe even a chiller section. Freezing yoghurt or the drink bottle, or having a chiller lunch bag is a good way to keep perishable items cool until lunch.
On the menu
- Swap chocolate yoghurt pudding for chocolate kumara pudding (to 1 cooked, pureed kumara add a good Tbsp cocoa, a Tbsp honey and even some cacao nibs for crunchy goodness. You could also add some coconut cream) or chocolate avocado pudding (blended avocado, cocoa powder and a small amount of honey and vanilla extract).
- Puree fruits and add some oomph by adding chia seeds and some coconut cream.
- Baked stuffed potatoes or kumara.
- Kumara or potato wedges with guacamole or salsa.
- Wraps which lend themselves to more fillings where you can include more protein options.
- Cubes of cheese and grapes on toothpicks.
- Try making Jan Bilton's gluten free courgette loaf (see recipe below), or the courgette, sage and havarti fritters.
- Make a batch of seed crackers (see recipe below) and include a few in the lunchbox with some cream cheese, cottage cheese or cheddar cheese to put on them.
- If you are making a sandwich use sourdough or the grainiest bread (for older children). Fill with generous amounts of fat, protein and green vegetables — this will ensure their blood sugar level is maintained throughout the afternoon. Fillings such as cooked chicken and avocado; hard-boiled egg mashed with avocado and seasoning or hummus with feta, mashed red kidney beans and pumpkin seeds are all good examples. Break the sandwich every day habit by swapping out a sandwich for one of the other options above, twice a week.
Seed crackers (gluten and dairy free)
Rather than using both chia and flax seeds you could use just half a cup of one. It is important to include one or the other because they are what break down and bind everything together.
½ cup sunflower seeds
½ cup pumpkin seeds
¼ cup sesame seeds
¼ cup poppy seeds
¼ cup flax seeds (linseeds)
¼ cup chia seeds
½ tsp salt
1 cup water
Flaky sea salt
- Heat oven to 170C. Place all the seeds and the salt in a bowl, pour in water and mix to combine. Leave for 15 minutes for the chia and flax seeds to soften and bind everything together.
- Tip out on to a baking paper-lined oven tray and spread out as thin as possible (around 4mm thick) and sprinkle with some flaky sea salt. Bake for 30 minutes.
- Remove from the oven and slice into crackers, then return to the oven to cook for another 20-30 minutes until crisp and golden. Remove to a rack to cool then store in an airtight container. Recipe by Jo Elwin.
To favourite, print or share this recipe, go to the recipe page.
Gluten-free courgette loaf
4 eggs, separated
2 medium courgettes, grated (2 cups)
125g butter, melted
1 cup ground almonds
¼ cup walnuts, chopped
2 Tbsp honey
1½ tsp mixed spice
1 tsp baking powder (gluten-free)
1 tsp cream of tartar
- Heat oven to 175C and grease a 23 x 13cm loaf pan.
- Cut a piece of baking paper so it goes down one side of the pan, across the base and up the other side — but not the ends.
- Put egg yolks in a large bowl and beat until creamy, about 2 minutes.
- Squeeze dry the grated courgettes and add to the egg yolks with the butter, ground almonds, walnuts, honey, mixed spice and baking powder. Mix well.
- In a clean bowl, using a clean beater, whip egg whites and cream of tartar until stiff peaks form.
- Fold into courgette mixture a little at a time. Pour into prepared pan. Bake for about 40 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean.
- Cool in pan for 10 minutes then lift out using the baking paper and cool on a rack. Great served sliced and buttered. Recipe by Jan Bilton.