School lunches can feel relentless and completely overwhelming – the true daily grind. It’s hard to stay creative, especially when the school canteen is so convenient. While the canteen is a great option sometimes, it’s not ideal to turn to it regularly due to the often less-nutritious options available. So, if you’re struggling to figure out how to build a healthy school lunch that your child will actually eat, we’ve got some tips that might help.
By Mia Achhorner, student Dietitian & Amanda Smith, Accredited Practising Dietitian
In short, this is about prioritising nutrient-dense wholefoods over highly processed foods. A great way to get started is to increase the variety in your child’s diet. We always recommend trying to eat at least 30 different plants every week. These can include herbs, vegetables, fruit, legumes, grains and even spices.
This diversity promotes a healthy gut by keeping the microbiota (gut bacteria) happy. This can help optimise our immune health, which is particularly important with young children.
If your child is a picky eater, getting them to try new things might be tough. So, a good way to get around this is to combine things they already like with something new. For example, in your next chicken fried rice, you could also add some tofu. Or if you’ve got carrot sticks, you could chop up some cucumber or capsicum too. But take this process of incorporating new foods slowly and remember it can take up to 20 times of introducing a new food before a child will accept it.
Reduce highly-processed foods
Next, try to reduce the reliance on highly processed foods, like chips and biscuits. These are, of course, fine as sometimes foods, but preferably not five days a week. Packaged foods usually also end up being more expensive than a piece of fruit, chopping up some raw veggies or making a big jar of hummus at the start of the week.
Buy less packaged foods
Following on from this, cutting down on the plastic-wrapped goods is great for the planet! If your child loves popcorn, you could start buying a big bag and dividing it up into smaller containers or silicone zip-lock bags, instead of getting the individually packed ones. Or if you want to go the extra mile, you could even start popping your own and storing it in an airtight container for the week.
Make the most of leftovers
If this all sounds way too time-consuming for the morning rush, just making bigger dinners is a lifesaver. This way, all you need to do is pop the leftovers into a container and voilà, school lunch is served! Some easy dinner-to-lunch ideas are mini quiches/frittatas, veggie fried rice and mezze plates. Just be sure to include an ice-brick to keep food cool and safe to enjoy.
Build a healthy school lunch
We can split a child’s meals into 4 elements: carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats and veggies. Put simply, carbs are for energy (mental and physical performance), protein (and healthy fats) to keep them full, and veggies (and fruit) for their vitamins and minerals.
Start with a base of carbs, which are the fuel that gives your child energy for the day. Aim for wholegrain carbs to provide a slow, sustained energy release. This may be in the form of buckwheat/wholemeal pasta, brown rice, wholegrain bread or legumes.
Then add some protein and fat to keep your child satisfied and fuller for longer. Protein is super important for a growing child and ensures they feel satiated for the rest of the afternoon. Some lunchbox-friendly options are legumes, tofu, chicken, tuna or Greek yoghurt.
Healthy fats have a variety of benefits, including improved brain function, stabilised blood sugar levels and hormone production. This may be included in the form of avocado, seeds, olive oil, oily fish and nuts.
FRUIT & VEGGIES
Finally, complete the rainbow! In other words, pack them fruit, veggies and then sneak in some more veggies. For instance, if you’re making a Bolognese, you can chop in some extra celery, carrot and zucchini. Or if you’re giving them a chicken curry, include some broccoli, peas and coriander, too. This way, they’re still eating meals they’re familiar with, but they’re getting so much more variety to fuel their gut and provide adequate nutrients to support their growth, activity and learning.
Healthy school lunch ideas
Here are some of our favourite lunch box inclusions:
– Fried rice with chicken, tofu, peas, carrots and broccoli
– Falafel wrap with lettuce, hummus, cucumber and tomato
– Salad with feta, sweet potato, carrot, cucumber and seeds
– Wholegrain cheese and salad wrap
– Egg and salad wholegrain sandwich
– Fruit and yoghurt
– Hummus with veggie sticks
– Roasted chickpeas
– Cheese and seeded crackers
– Baby cucumber, cherry tomato, baby carrots and snow peas
– Hard boiled eggs
– Plain milk popper
Don’t forget to hydrate!
When building a healthy school lunch, don’t forget a water bottle because those few sips from the bubbler aren’t quite enough. If your child doesn’t love the taste of water or struggles to drink adequate amounts, you could try adding some lemon and mint or some fresh fruit slices to make it a bit more interesting. A frozen water bottle can double as a freezer brick and a cold drink in the afternoon.
Looking for healthy ideas for your own work day? Read about how to meal prep for work lunches, and don’t forget to follow us on LinkedIn for regular healthy eating advice and updates.