Most school dinners are, let’s face it, not ideal nutritionally and leave a lot to be desired in terms of taste and appeal. If you’re one of those parents, I have to admit that I am no longer, faced with the daily task of making a kids healthy packed lunch because school dinners are hitting the mark, it can be daunting, stressful and soul-sucking. Perhaps I am projecting, but those were MY initial thoughts and feelings when I had to make healthy kids packed lunches for my youngest for a year when the primary school didn’t provide school dinners for pre-schoolers.
But I decided not to let it beat me, I got smart and most importantly, I got prepared. And believe it or not, I learned to enjoy creating her healthy packed lunches and enjoyed knowing that she was getting food that would fuel her brain and body throughout the day. I work in food and nutrition, so I possibly found this more enjoyable that your average parent, but trust me, I was right there with you when I first started out, lacking in enthusiasm, ideas and time.
So if you’re in for a year of packed lunches, whether or not is out of choice or because of Covid or even you’re still toying with the idea, here are my 5 top tips for healthy kids packed lunches to help you face and triumph in this game. I can promise that they will help keep you sane and maybe, just maybe, you’ll start to enjoy it! Maybe.
1. Prep a few items in advance. Whether it’s a dip and some energy balls, muffins and some oat biscuits, falafel and some cooked grains, a batch of egg mayo and some date butter or a pasta sauce and some pre-chopped or fermented veg sticks, make sure you head into the week with a bit of an armoury. These are things can keep well in the fridge can be eaten a few different ways–on its own, in a wrap or as an accompaniment to a hearty salad or served on top of some lentils in order to suit different ages and preferences and that can be reinvented and eaten again later in the week.
2. Use this formula for a stress-free, nutritionally sound lunch: 1 main event + 1-2 portions of fruit + 2-3 different veg (in the main event or on the side) + a source of wholegrain fibre (i.e. brown rice, brown pasta, brown bread, etc) + protein. And you can include a sweet extra, but make sure it has some nutritional value and ideally includes a source of healthy fat, fibre and protein. If you’re not sure how to tick all of these nutritional boxes, come to my Family Gut Nutrition & Cookery Workshop Series because we cover this off.
3. Aim for a rainbow of colours and a vary the fruit, veg, nuts (if allowed), seeds and grains to keep it interesting and for the all-important dietary diversity (key to healthy diet and a healthy gut). If you’re only seeing beige, it’s back to the drawing board. This means doing a quick lunchbox scan for a range of colours and rotating the added extras throughout the week. Remember, vibrancy and variety are the buzzwords.
4. Hoard small jars (with lids) and small takeaway pots as they are great for holding different components in packed lunches. This will keep bits from going soggy or mixing and afford some choice and control to your kids to how they eat it. You put the good stuff in, they decide how to eat it, right? If they want to dip their energy ball in hummus, so be it!
5. Pay attention to what comes home uneaten and have an open, non-judgmental dialog with your kids about it. Portions may be off (possibly too big–as a feeder, this was always my downfall) or they may not have had time to eat it all. Don’t just assume it’s because they didn’t like what you packed, which occasionally may be the case. It is important to find a solution that is workable for you both, ie you know they are getting a nutritionally sound lunch and they are happy to eat it.
And finally, engage your kids in the planning and lunch prep. Getting their buy-in makes it more likely that they’ll eat it!
If you’re looking for some great, packed lunch recipes for kids and that can be enjoyed by the whole family, here are a few of my recipes from last weekend’s Guardian Feast.