Rozanne Stevens offers some top tips and advice for parents on healthy and appealing lunch boxes.
When I was about eight years old, I went through a chubby phase. My mom, a primary school principal, dealt with it very well. Rather than make a big deal out of my rotund silhouette, she changed the contents of my lunchbox. Gone were the white bread sandwiches with leftover meatballs and chutney, and in were yoghurts, cherry tomatoes and cucumber sticks.
And I can genuinely say that it has changed my attitude to and taste in food till this day. I love popping sweet cherry tomatoes like grapes and I often eat half a tub of hummus with celery for lunch on the go. But I am realist and I know that not everyone’s' tastes are the same, and kids in particular can be fussy. Plus there is also the question of budget, food preparation and time. So here is a basic structure of how to put together a lunchbox that is healthy, tasty and affordable.
During a busy school or work day, we need healthy carbohydrates to give us energy and to fuel the brain. Traditionally this would be a sandwich which can be good, bad or indifferent depending on the bread and the filling. Try using tortilla wraps, seeded or brown buns, brown bread or wholewheat pita pockets for added fibre and B vitamins. Or you can take a slightly different route and bake a tray of savoury muffins or scones. These can be baked in batches of 12 or 24 and can be frozen successfully if well wrapped. It may seem like a lot of work, but they are so quick and easy and really tasty. Swop out regular flour for spelt flour for added nutrients. Cold pasta salads and couscous salads are also great for a filling and tasty lunch.
I'm sure all moms are tired of bruised apples and black bananas coming back in the school bag. Try different fruit and presentation. Kids like individual portions and easy ways to eat it. Very popular are small bunches of grapes and 'easy peeler' citrus fruit like mandarins and clementines. And a sure winner is cubes of fruit on a bamboo skewer, you could try watermelon, pineapple, gala or cantaloupe melon and strawberries. It may seem like a lot of work but here is how you manage. Buy one pineapple, half a melon of your choice and a punnet of strawberries (the Irish season runs till December). Peel and chop up the pineapple into chunks. Use a melon baller to scoop out balls of melon (it is quicker, trust me), don't worry about the seeds in the watermelon. Chop the top off the strawberries to get rid of the leaves. Store the fruit in airtight containers in the fridge for three to four days. Use the fruit for lunchbox skewers, breakfast and after school munchies. If it is ready and easily accessible, it stands a better chance of being eaten.
The bit of wilting lettuce or soggy tomato slice in a sandwich doesn't really make veggies appealing. In my experience, a surprising number of kids who won’t eat cooked vegetables, like them raw or slightly steamed. So chopped up raw veggies in a lunchbox are a perfect filler. They provide vital vitamins, minerals and fibre, and also digestive enzymes and water. But not even I eat plain raw veggies – I like a tasty dip to go with them. Good old hummus is still my favourite, and the tahini (sesame seed paste) in hummus is also an excellent source of calcium and healthy fats. Chickpeas are so nutritious and that makes hummus a winner. You can also make great dips using plain yoghurt and herbs or nut butters.
Dried Fruit, Nuts and Seeds
I always pack a small bag of mixed nuts, seeds and dried fruit. A homemade muesli bar or nut butter are also a good option. This fulfils several dietary needs: healthy fats and oils for brain function, something sweet to fill the gap and plenty of fibre. I buy my nuts and seeds in bulk and store them in the freezer to keep them fresh. This is one of the best tips I can give you, it is more economical and the nuts and seeds taste so much better. My favourites are sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, pistachios, pecan nuts and flaked almonds. For dried fruit I always have un-sulphured (sulphur is used to give dried fruit a bright colour) sultanas, dried cranberries, apricots and apple rings. I use nut butters on sandwiches, in dips and with a drizzle of honey on oat crackers. My current favourites are cashew and almond. These are available in health shops but can be quite expensive. My best find is a completely fresh peanut butter with nothing added made by The Hopsack Healthshop in Rathmines. At only €1.59 a jar, it is a steal and packed with goodness. Warning: it is addictive!