If Back to School pressure wasn't hectic enough between sorting uniforms, books, fees etc, we also have to make sure they have a lunchbox filled with food they will actually eat and that will keep them going until they get home.
But before you reach for the old reliable ham sambo, here are some suggestions for jazzing things up that will not only save you time and money but that might make this job a little easier too.
1. Pick ‘n mix
Not the sweetie variety! There are 5 key types of foods that we should be including every day – ensuring that you pick one item from each of these groups will take the guesswork out and leave you confident that your child’s lunchbox is nicely balanced.
- Carbs - to make sure they have enough energy to sustain themselves until home time.
Examples: Whole wheat pitta/wraps/bagels, crackers, pasta, quinoa, rice
- Protein – to keep them fuller for longer and to help maintain their concentration levels. It doesn’t have to be meat/cheese - try including hummus, falafels, egg or tinned fish.
- Fat – omega 3’s are called essential for a reason! They help with brain development and happy hormone levels.
Examples: Eggs (frittata, muffins), fish, avocado, yogurt, cheese, seeds
- Fruit/Veg – full of antioxidants to help our little ones fight infection, try to include both and vary as much as possible (think rainbow!). Grating or adding dips can help with compliance.
- Drink – Water, water, water! Even mild dehydration can cause poor concentration, tiredness and tantrums. Avoid juices and smoothies as a general rule to help with good oral health. In wintertime, opt for warm soups in flasks.
Mix It Up - Mexican, Greek, One Pot Wonder - the options are endless:
If you want to be really fancy, you could choose certain themes – e.g. Mexican could be tortilla (carbs), shredded chicken (protein), guacamole (fat) and sweetcorn (fruit/veg), Greek could be pitta, feta, hummus, and cucumber, etc., or pull it all together into a "one pot wonder" of leftover pasta, chicken, avocado, tomato or rice, beans, seeds, and peas. Little pots of dressing or dips can be added for the more daring child!
2. How to store/present it
Now that we know what to put in the lunchbox, what’s the best way to pull it all together?
- You might want to consider a bento style lunchbox with separate compartments so that they can choose things individually or pull it all together into a wrap/sambo. This will keep things crisp and prevent sogginess.
- Individual baby pots are also quite handy for chopped fruits/veg and dips.
- Experiment with different shapes/cookie cutters for fussy eaters – my kids won’t eat carrot batons but are happy to eat "circle" carrots!
Freeze a bottle of water to keep things cool while it’s still warm outside – tepid lunches not only lose their appeal but are a breeding ground for E. coli.
- Keep all containers BPA free and avoid tin foil and clingfilm – exposure has been linked to possible side effects. Opt to wrap items in parchment paper instead.
- Include cutlery, a napkin and even a personalised love note if you’re feeling extra mushy!
3. Test the waters
Every year it’s the same – we start off with such gusto and enthusiasm only to be left defeated by day three when what we’ve painstakingly prepared comes home again untouched.
- To avoid this pitfall, try out foods on the little ones before including them in the lunch box – use a family picnic as a trial run to see what works and what doesn’t.
- Including them in the choosing and preparation of food should help get their buy-in and interest up. Make a batch of savoury muffins at the weekend and make a fuss over the fact that you’ve packed them one in their lunch box.
- Ask them what they’ve seen their friends eat that they might like to try. Go with textures and tastes that you know they like already – e.g. if they like pasta, would they have a pasta salad?
Your freezer is your best friend when it comes to stocking up and there’s no reason why you can’t avail of all the tasty treats yourself for your own lunch/snacks! This will ensure that your child gets continued variety without too much effort on your part.
- Cooking one thing in bulk each week, like a batch of flapjacks or savoury muffins, will give you a treasure trove of foods to choose from within a matter of weeks. Simply take out the night before or even on the day itself – by the time lunch comes around it will be perfect.
- Freeze leftovers from dinner time that you can incorporate into salads, sambos or snacks – slice any leftover roast from Sunday dinner or portion off leftover veg.
- Wrap food items in parchment paper to prevent freezer burn or place a sheet of parchment in between layers of items to prevent them sticking together. Don’t forget to date and label everything.
5. Shop bought staples
When all else fails, have a few emergency items in your cupboard for when the fridge and freezer are running on empty because there will be days when we find ourselves stuck.
- Shop with caution and don’t be fooled by the marketing! A lot of products geared towards school lunches are devoid of nutrition and full of sugar. Sugar can keep our immune systems from firing on all cylinders, which is the last thing we want for our little ones (and ourselves!).
- 4-8 year olds should have no more than 4 tsps. of added sugar per day – a petit filous or frube has 2 tsps. alone. Nature Valley bars have 3 tsps. per serving.
- Read the labels. "No added sugar" usually means that an artificial sweetener has been used instead, which is often worse than sugar itself. Top tip: pay attention to where it says "Carbohydrates: of which sugars" and remember that every 4g listed here equates to 1 tsp of sugar.
- Another common pitfall is to choose low-fat products thinking they’re the healthier option, when in fact they often have sugar added to replace the flavour lost from the fat.
The Good, The Bad & The Ugly
Carbs: Good whole wheat bread options can be very handy and most can be frozen for future use. Crackers can also but a good choice and don’t just have to be the cream cracker variety!
Nowadays you’re spoilt for choice with a cracker made from every grain imaginable so alternate between the different varieties because each type brings something different to the table.
Protein: Ready-made falafels, tinned mixed beans and mini pots of seeds are all very handy.
Fat: Tinned tuna/mackerel, seeds or dressings made from good cold-pressed oils.
Fruit/Veg: Some good quality vegetable crisps can be a quick option for when you’re stuck and can inspire even the fussiest of eaters to try vegetables.
Popcorn can also be fine as an occasional item to include. Just make sure to get a good brand from the likes of your local health shop. Dried fruit can be a nice treat in very small quantities so long as it’s sulphite free.
So now you’re all set to prepare a lunch box that packs a real punch. Don’t be afraid to use the internet for inspiration if you start to falter and to inject some new ideas when they get bored. Have fun!
Maggie Carey has a BSc in Applied Science from Trinity College and is a qualified nutritionist, herbalist and naturopath. As a busy mum of three young children, she fully understands the need for quick but nutritious meals to fuel families and fight off infections.