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School Lunches Unpacked

School Lunches Unpacked

By Catherine Bonifant

We all know that in order to be healthy, happy, and to achieve their potential, children and young people need to eat a variety of nutritious foods every day.  And contrary to popular (my children’s) belief, it is possible to provide them with a healthy school lunch that not only tastes great but is good for them. I know I am not alone when I say that preparing school lunches is one of my least favourite chores. However, I have vowed that this year, it will not be my undoing each weekday morning.

 

Generally, a healthy lunchbox comprises six components:

  1. A main item, which is usually a grain or cereal food
  2. A fruit snack
  3. A vegetable snack
  4. Milk, yoghurt or cheese (or alternatives, like calcium-fortified soy milk or yoghurt)
  5. A meat or meat alternative, or a second dairy serve.
  6. Water to drink

In order to plan a healthy school lunchbox, it may be useful to think of your child’s intake at school in the context of their daily nutritional requirements. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend the number of ‘standard serves’ people should consume each day from the five core food groups – vegetables and legumes; fruits; grains (cereals); lean meat and alternatives; and milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives.

Recommended intakes for children and young people are outlined in the table below and are an average to aim for each day. Some children will eat more or less from each group, and still maintain good nutritional status.  If your child is eating more from a particular food group, ensure these foods are not taking the place of foods from the other groups, or that they are not consuming too many calories from one or more group for typical growth.   

What does a serve look like?

You may like to roughly count how many serves from each food group your child is consuming, and see if they are meeting their recommended number of serves from each group per day, or if they are consuming too many discretionary foods – foods that offer little nutritional benefit and are usually high in sugar, salt and/or fat, like cakes, biscuits, deep fried foods, or pastries.  Note what they eat for breakfast, when they get home from school, and at the evening meal, and then pack what’s missing in their lunchbox. 

Good examples of nutritious foods for lunchboxes from each of the core good groups include:

  • vegetables and legumes: carrot, celery or capsicum sticks with a dip, small cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, cold potato salad, salad as a filling on rolls/wraps, vegetable muffins, quiche or frittata, a side salad, vegetable soup
  • fruits: whole fruit, canned or tinned fruit in natural juice, fruit kebabs, frozen grapes or berries, fruit puree in a tub or pouch
  • grains: bread, wraps, rolls, cracker biscuits, rice cakes, corn thins, savoury scrolls, rice or pasta salad, popcorn, fruit bread
  • lean meat and alternatives: lean chicken breast slices, hard boiled eggs, nut spreads, small tin of baked beans, small tin of fish, whole nuts
  • milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives: plain milk tetra paks, cheese cubes/slices/sticks, yoghurt tubs and tubes, fruit smoothies, soy yoghurt, cream cheese spread

 

And of course, the foods (the discretionary foods) that do not belong in a healthy school lunchbox and are best avoided at school include:

  • all sweet drinks such as fruit juices, fruit drinks, cordials, sports drinks, energy drinks, flavoured waters, flavoured mineral waters, iced teas and soft drinks.
  • dried fruit bars and fruit
  • dairy desserts, chocolate bars and muesli bars
  • chocolate spreads, jams and honey in sandwiches
  • fatty, salty processed meats such as salami and devon
  • oven-baked savoury biscuits

Try these practical tips to help streamline school lunch box preparation:

  • Include lunchbox items in your weekly meal plan and shopping.
  • Shop wisely and save money. Buy fresh fruit and vegetables in season to ensure quality and to keep to budget.
  • Pack foods from bulk packages into small containers/reusable food pouches at the start of the week eg popcorn, crackers, muffins, cheese slices, yoghurt.  Try preparing containers for the entire week.
  • Make and prepare muffins, fruit bread and pikelets etc in advance – cut, spread and pack into small bags or containers and freeze in individual portions. Very handy to simply take from the freezer each morning.
  • Share the baking! Get together with a small group of other school parents, bake healthy foods in bulk and share the batches!  This helps with variety and creates time and cost efficiencies.
  • Assemble as much of the lunchbox as possible the night before. It may be then as simple as adding some fresh cut up fruit and vegetables and a salad roll in the morning.
  • Care for the environment. Use small containers or reusable bags.
  • And don’t forget about food safety – choose an insulated lunch box or include a freezer pack or frozen drink, and only pack cold foods.  If possible, encourage children to keep their bag out of direct sunlight and away from heat.

Give children and young people some choice about what they take for lunch, and where possible, get them involved in lunchbox prep. Take them shopping and allow them to choose fruits and vegetables for their lunchbox, or let them help prepare sandwiches, or bake healthy muffins. 

It is important to remember that school is a time when children are starting to make independent lifestyle choices – they are quick learners and are influenced by peers and society. As such, it is a perfect time to talk about and encourage healthy food habits. 

It is also important to remind yourself and your child that school lunches do not need to be fancy or complicated to be nutritious and satisfying – children do not need a $60-8 compartment-Disney-character lunch pail, nor do they need chips or juice or confectionary, or tuckshop every day. Hopefully, with some forward planning, a little bit of preparation, and some new ideas, the agony of packing a school lunchbox will become a thing of the past.

Catherine Bonifant

Catherine Bonifant has been a paediatric dietitian for over 17 years, in addition to private consultant work with CHILDD (www.childd.com.au). She is currently the Clinical Leader of Medical Dietetic Services at a large paediatric tertiary hospital in Queensland. Catherine also works with the Queensland Child and Youth Clinical Network in childhood obesity prevention. Catherine is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and an active member of the Dietitians Association of Australia.

Catherine worked at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane as a clinical paediatric dietitian for more than 13 years, and also managed her own paediatric private practice based at the Mater Specialist Centre in Brisbane, specialising in infant nutrition.

Catherine has worked as a consultant dietitian with elite athletes at the Queensland Academy of Sport and with high level sporting teams such as the Brisbane Broncos and the Queensland Reds, and has also consulted in the community nutrition setting at Nutrition Australia, managing the Queensland Child Care Advisory Service, and with not for profit organisation Save the Children Fund. She is the mother of three young girls.

COMMENTS

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Comments (12):

I agree this is a very helpful article.

claremary - January 23, 2018

Like this too. The chart is helpful for serving sizes.

jackimcmeeking - January 21, 2018

Like this too. The chart is helpful for serving sizes.

jackimcmeeking - January 21, 2018

Like this too. The chart is helpful for serving sizes.

jackimcmeeking - January 21, 2018

Super helpful Cath. Thanks so much! Congrats on your success. I also like the idea from ClaireB re the chart. My kids love a chart too.

katewatto - January 21, 2018

Super helpful Cath. Thanks so much! Congrats on your success. I also like the idea from ClaireB re the chart. My kids love a chart too.

katewatto - January 21, 2018

Great article Cath. Love the pics for clarity. Nice and simple. Rosie

rmmrosiem - January 21, 2018

Great tips and advice!!! I’m definitely going to try be prepared at the beginning of each week Good luck with the school run next week mums!!!

meagan - January 19, 2018

Great tips and advice!!! I’m definitely going to try be prepared at the beginning of each week Good luck with the school run next week mums!!!

meagan - January 19, 2018

Funny I think they are 'serves'.

claremary - January 18, 2018