Keep it interesting
Would you eat the same lunch every day? It’s probably unlikely. It is oft said that variety is the spice of life. The same applies to our food intake. Eating the same foods day in, day out may lead to taste fatigue – a condition where the sense of taste becomes diminished over time. Take the sandwich - the Australian lunchbox staple - for example. Rather than preparing it with conventional bread, try seeded bagels, whole-wheat wraps, sandwich crackers, pita bread, English muffins or pikelets. Additionally, ensure the fillings are satisfying. Some choices are: egg and salad, tuna and lettuce, cream cheese with smoked salmon, feta and avocado, and cottage cheese and cucumber. Providing a variety of foods will ensure that your kids not only meet their nutritional requirements so they can withstand the rigours of their day, but will also ensure that they are kept satisfied.
Fresh unprocessed foods are the gold standard. Including fresh fruit rather than fruit bars and including cheese and wholegrain crackers rather than prepackaged cheese dips and white biscuits are far better nutritional options. Data published in 2005 reported that on average, Australian primary school children had three processed food snacks in their lunchbox every day. Some healthy alternatives might be: fruit (no surprises there), vegetable sticks with salsa, low fat fruit yoghurt, no-added sugar flavoured milk drinks, homemade air-popped popcorn (sprinkle with dry herbs rather than butter and salt), baked beans, a hard-boiled egg or tinned fish.
It’s OK to add an occasional treat
You’ll never hear a dietitian refer to a food as “good” or “bad”. We prefer to use terms like “sometimes” foods and “everyday” foods. While an apple is a food that should be enjoyed regularly, a chocolate bar should only be consumed from time to time. It’s important to teach kids this philosophy from an early age. Giving your tots the occasional chocolate bar or packet of chips is acceptable – just be sure not to make it an everyday occurrence.
Practice good food safety
Young children are more at risk of getting food poisoning, as their immune systems are not yet fully developed. The bugs that trigger food-borne illness grow between 5°C and 60°C, so it’s vital to keep food cool. Using insulated lunchboxes or cooler bags, placing a frozen drink bottle next to foods that should be kept cool, and ensuring that packed lunches are kept out of direct sunlight will minimise the risk of food poisoning. Also, encourage your kids to consume at-risk foods like cheeses, eggs, dips and milks at morning recess, and to save their fruit, popcorn, crackers and other less vulnerable foods for their mid-afternoon break.
Make time for breakfast
Research shows that Australian kids who skip breakfast are heavier than those who eat breakfast. The evidence also shows that kids who do skip breakfast may struggle to obtain their daily requirements of fibre, iron, calcium, zinc and riboflavin. Eating a nutritious breakfast reduces fatigue, facilitates learning and increases concentration. Some easy-to-prepare breakfast foods include: porridge, whole-wheat and wholegrain cereals, multigrain toast with peanut butter or vegemite, fresh fruit, yoghurt, a glass of milk and baked beans or eggs on toast. Lack of time is a common excuse among those who skip breakfast; however, eating breakfast needn’t be a laborious task for you or your kids. Make the extra 5-10 minutes needed to consume breakfast quality family time – you may want to tackle the morning crossword together. Win-win.
By sending your kids to school armed with nutritional goodies, as well as ensuring they don’t leave home without breakfast you’ll be maximizing their potential in the classroom and on the sporting field – now that’s something every parent can be proud of.
Sanigorski, AM, Bell, AC, Kremer, PJ & Swinburn, BA 2005 ‘Lunchbox contents of Australian school children: room for improvement’, European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 59(11): 1310-6
Australian Government 2007, Australian National Children's Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey, Department of Health, NSW