Healthy school lunchbox ideas for children (beware the supermarket signs)

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It’s not just teeth that are in trouble. Figures from the Obesity Evidence Hub show that one in four Australian children is overweight or obese and that discretionary foods – the non-essential food category that includes items such as biscuits, cakes, confectionery and packaged snacks – make up about 40 per cent of the daily kilojoule intake of four to 18-year-olds.

Although it’s possible to find healthier snack packs for kids, it takes some sleuthing. Front of pack promises such as “less sugar” or “air-popped, not fried” are no help – you need to flip the pack to read the nutrition panel and ingredient list to find the truth. That goes for products in the health food aisle, too – such as “lunchbox friendly” Triple Berry Mini Rice Cakes, which at 27 per cent sugar are close behind Tiny Teddies, or Chicken Rice Wheels, which at 504 milligrams of sodium per 100 grams have more sodium than Doritos.

“Many of these foods are highly processed, low in nutrients and fibre, and based on ‘fast release’ high GI carbohydrates that don’t provide a sustained release of energy into a child’s bloodstream over the day,” says Sydney-based paediatric dietitian and parent Karina Savage. “Kids need lower GI carbohydrates foods like wholegrain breads and wraps, legumes and fruit that are released slowly. This helps keep blood sugar levels stable – that supports good concentration and learning, and a happier mood at school pick up. ”

Her advice for other key lunchbox foods includes:

  • Vegies for fibre, vitamins and minerals. Aim for at least two different coloured vegetables in the lunchbox. Don’t stop at carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes or mini cucumbers – try corn on the cob, red capsicum strips, sugar snap peas or roast veg.
  • Quality protein foods. Shredded chicken, boiled egg, tuna, baked beans, hummus, frittata, cheese, yoghurt or meatballs are good – but skip processed meats.
  • Good fats. Usually nuts aren’t allowed so try seeds such as sunflowers and pepitas; incorporate tahini, linseed and chia into home-baked goods. Use mashed avocado as a spread.

Not every lunchbox sandwich needs a smiley face.

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“School lunches don’t have to be ‘Instagrammable’ –just as balanced as possible and with minimally processed foods,” Savage says.

“Children often like predictability and that can extend to lunchboxes. We parents might worry about lack of variety but some children may prefer the consistency. As long as there’s a good amount of colour with some protein and slow release carbs, you’re on a winner!”

Does it help to get kids involved in choosing lunchbox foods?

“They may be more open to eating their lunch if they have some say – giving them a couple of healthy options to choose from, for instance. But be firm on the need for a balance of food,” Savage says.

Try these snack swaps for a healthier lunchbox

  • Instead of chips, try homemade popcorn (takes only minutes); or mini packs of dried fava beans or chickpeas
  • Instead of roll-ups, try fresh fruit that’s easy to eat such as berries, grapes, watermelon sticks, sliced kiwi fruit, small bananas, mini pears, or snack packs of canned fruit in juice
  • Instead of flavoured yoghurt with 15 grams of sugar per 100 grams, look for one with less than 10 grams; try natural yoghurt with fresh fruit added; or untoasted muesli and fresh fruit mixed with natural or lower sugar yoghurt
  • Instead of Potato Stix, Rice Wheels and similar processed snacks, try cucumber sticks rolled in a cheese slice; “dinosaur bites”: wholegrain crackers spread with hummus or ricotta and spiked with pepitas; or homemade quinoa muffins
  • Instead of packaged crackers and dip, try wholegrain crackers or vegie sticks with hummus, ricotta or tzatziki (choose dips with sodium below 400 milligrams per 100 grams)

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