Earlier this year, I was interviewed by Stuff.co.nz to get some easy ideas for putting together healthy lunchboxes. Here's how it went down...
When preparing a lunchbox, what are some things to keep in mind to ensure it's nutritionally balanced?
Kids eat with their eyes, so I tend to focus on colour rather than nutrition. You’ll find that most of the ‘bad’ stuff is brown or pale, so if you’re packing a lunchbox full of colour, that usually means lots of fruit and veges. I like to pack some form of carbs (sandwich, wrap, rice) for energy, and definitely some protein (meat or egg in a sandwich, hard-boiled egg, cheese, yoghurt etc.) because it keeps little tummies full for longer.
How can preparing lunches be kept easy and stress-free for parents?
A little forward planning goes a long way. When you’re at the supermarket, grab a few healthy things you know will be quick and easy to throw in a lunchbox with no prep needed – mandarins, cherry tomatoes, cheese, grapes, rice crackers etc. And cook up a little extra at dinner time if your kids will eat left-overs in their lunchbox – pasta, a sausage, a chicken drumstick, meatballs, or salad are all great additions.
If you’re into baking, you can make a big batch of muffins or bliss balls and store them in the freezer. Just pack them in the lunchbox frozen – they will keep the box nice and cool and will have thawed by lunchtime. Likewise, if you're whizzing up some smoothies, make a little extra and store them in reusable food pouches in the freezer, all ready for grabbing in the morning rush and packing next to the lunchbox
I also like to hard-boil a batch of eggs on a Sunday (you can do this while cooking dinner so it doesn’t take any extra time!). That way, you have a nice, easy source of protein to pop in lunchboxes throughout the week.
What are some of the worst lunchbox foods and why?
The squashed banana at the bottom of the schoolbag has to be the worst! Actually anything squashed or bruised is just not going to get eaten! Food can only move if there is space, so choose a smaller lunchbox that you can fill to the brim rather than a monster-sized box that will have everything rattling around getting mashed up and bruised. Any little gaps can be filled in with cherry tomatoes, grapes, berries, dried fruit etc.
I’d never put chippies, chocolate, lollies or biscuits in a lunchbox either. They’re not going to fill the kids up, or be good for their concentration and learning during the day.
And any food that gets repeated day after day is not great because they’ll soon get bored and you’ll start getting full lunchboxes coming home at the end of the day!
What are your favourite lunchbox foods and why?
My kids love anything to dip so I make ‘crackers’ by cutting a wrap into shapes with a mini cutter and baking them for a few minutes until they’re crispy. They love them with mashed avocado or flavoured hummus. If I have no crackers, then strips of pepper go down well too as dippers.
I love packing kiwifruit – cut open so you can see the gorgeous colour. I think any meal looks better when you have some green!
Cherry tomatoes are a great, no-fuss addition and kids think they’re really fun, same with mandarins, berries and grapes.
If you’re not at a nut-free school, then almonds are a nutritious and filling snack.
I often add pretzels or air-popped popcorn to a lunchbox as the kids think they are a treat, but they’re not too bad for them! And it’s always good to have that bit of crunch.
If you could make the ultimate kids lunchbox what would you put in it?
I asked my 9yr old son for his ultimate lunch and this is what he said: rainbow wraps, cherry tomatoes, cucumber (he could live on cucumber!), grapes, and a fancy shaped egg (we have cool little gadgets that shape eggs into cars, fish etc). I think that comes pretty close! For rainbow wraps, I spread a wrap with mayo then top with lettuce, grated carrot, grated cheese, ham, and a few dollops of beetroot relish. Sometimes I’ll slice it up and lay the slices on their side so you can see all the yummy filling.
What are your top 4 tips to keeping lunchboxes fun and interesting for kids?
1. Vary the carbs. A square sandwich can be so bor-ing! Try mixing it up some days by replacing the sandwich with a bun, wraps, sushi, pita bread (a great base for mini pizzas!), pasta, savoury muffin, or even a toasted sandwich (make sure it’s cool before you pack it or it’ll go soggy – yuck!). And even if you are sticking with a plain old sandwich, try thinking outside the square to fancy it up a bit! Cut out ‘peep holes’ with a cookie cutter so you can see a bit of the filling, use special shaped sandwich or cookie cutters, or thread the sandwich ingredients onto a skewer! You could even make ‘sushi’ sandwiches by trimming the crusts from bread, adding your filling, then rolling them up and stacking them in the lunchbox.
2. Ditch the packaging. Lots of kindies and schools have a no-rubbish policy now but, even if though don’t, it’s good to get rid of the ugly plastic wrap and let the food shine! A bento box is ideal for this as you can pop different food into all the little compartments without the need for any packaging and everything stays in its place. I haven’t met a kid yet who doesn’t love this pick ‘n mix style of eating, and it’s perfect for tempting fussy eaters, or children who hate different foods touching. Mini containers and silicone baking cups are great for creating divisions in a larger lunchbox, and they add colour while eliminating the need for plastic wrap. Colourful reusable sandwich wraps are a great idea too, and leak-proof containers for yoghurt, dips, and sauces are something you’ll find you use over and over again.
3. Cut up the fruit. Especially for younger children, a whole apple or orange can be quite intimidating! Try cutting fruit and veges into smaller pieces to make them much more appealing and easier to eat, and instead of a large serving of one type of fruit, try offering smaller tastes of 2 or 3 different ones. You could even try upping the fun factor by including a dip (eg yoghurt for fruit, hummus for vege sticks). [To stop an apple from browning, drop the slices into a bowl of water with a big squirt of lemon juice in it. After 20 seconds, dry the slices off on a paper towel and they’ll be good to go.]
4. Add an element of fun. You don’t need to go overboard and take a lot of time over this, but the kids will love it! Just pick one thing a few times a week – it could be a round sandwich instead of a square one, a cute little fork or pick to eat with, carrots sliced into circles if you usually cut them into sticks, berries threaded onto a skewer…actually anything on a stick always goes down well!
Why should parents diversify from the old Vegemite sandwich and piece fruit lunch and put more variation/effort into their kids lunch?
If you and your kids are totally happy with the Vegemite sandwich and apple, then stick with that. But, if the lunchboxes are coming home with only half their contents eaten, then it’s probably time to put some thought into how you present food. Whether you’re dealing with picky eaters, little ones who’d rather rush out to play than sit down to lunch, or kids who are simply bored with the same old thing every day, you’ll find that changing things up a bit will make a huge difference in what gets eaten. It’s so easy to just throw in some chippies, so-called ‘healthy’ muesli bars or biscuits, but I think if you can present healthy food attractively, kids will actually want to eat it! It’s actually quite fun to get creative with lunches, and who knows...it might even encourage the kids into the kitchen to make their own lunch!
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