How to Avoid the Lunch Box Blues

Does your child’s lunch box contain rice cakes, cottage cheese, apricots and water as recommended by the new Government school food watchdog? Or is it stuffed full of sweets, fizzy pop and a white bread sandwich thrown together as you rushed out of the door this morning? While the cottage cheese option is guaranteed to cure parental guilt, it isn’t necessarily the only option for health.

With child obesity levels on the rise, parents are bombarded with diet messages from doctors, nutritionists and government health experts. New lunch standards for schools, introduced this month, ban crisps, confectionery and even cereal bars. Flavoured water is out, as are fizzy drinks and processed meat. Strict rules will shortly govern how much salt, sugar and fat lunches can contain. Parents should brace themselves for a raft of ‘dos and don’ts’ from their local schools.

While it’s great to improve children’s diets, parents are left with the headache of persuading little Jade/Thomas to eat the fruit, vegetables, pitta bread, oily fish or brie, and banning favourite treats. Sticker charts can only go so far. There is also a risk that strict Government guidelines set parents up for failure. Yes, we need to do more, but don’t parents know best about how to move their kids’ diets in the right direction? Surely pack lunches can be fun and tasty, as well as being healthy.

First, the bad news. Only one in ten children eat the recommended 5-a-day fruits and vegetables and intakes of saturated fats are too high. Fibre intakes could do with a boost, as could levels of iron, vitamin A and calcium. The good news is that newspaper headlines claiming we’re all ruining our kids with junk food diets are not fair comment for most families. Sure, we could do better on some areas but, in general, children are growing normally and are healthy. Plus, we shouldn’t forget regular physical activity which is life’s natural calorie burner and the safest way of managing weight in children.

So, how far do you need to go to provide your kids with a healthy diet? And how do pack lunches fit into this, given that busy parents are not blessed with time? Starting with the essentials, children will benefit from more fruits, vegetables, wholegrains and low fat dairy foods. A small portion of crisps, confectionery and biscuits can be allowed on most days of the week but these foods shouldn’t dominate the diet. In the box below, I’ve put together my top tips for a healthy lunchbox.

On BBC3’s Honey We’re Killing the Kids where I’m the nutrition expert, I always try to encourage a balance between the various categories of foods, with healthy foods making up the majority of children’s daily diets and a couple of favourite snacks or drinks providing interest. Banning treat foods only increases their allure and can be counterproductive. However, portion sizes should be watched. Some of the families I’ve worked with give their kids adult-sized portions of snacks and fizzy drinks and then wonder why the healthy meals are not eaten!

By following my tips for a common-sense pack lunch, you can tick all the health boxes without alienating your kids. The stricter option may well be healthier but could end up in the bin, or swapped for a toffee-covered cream bun in the school playground. As we say in the nutrition world, healthy food is only any good if it is actually eaten. A common-sense approach to your child’s lunchbox is one step in the right direction.

The common-sense lunchbox

  1. Sandwich made with wholegrain or high fibre white bread, low fat spread and good quality meat e.g. ham, beef or turkey slices (vegetarian options include cheese, hummus, peanut butter or egg mashed with lite mayonnaise).
  2. Matchbox piece of cheese or a cheese string or a kid’s yoghurt with fruit puree.
  3. Fruit/veg e.g. carrot sticks, handful of berries, small apple, satsuma, raisins. Seasonal, local fruit and veg are fresher and don’t come with those air miles.
  4. A portion of crisps, chocolate, biscuit or cake. Choose fun size/small packs. Stick to chocolate rather than chewy, gummy sweets as it is less harmful to teeth.
  5. Weak juice in a sports bottle (50/50 pure juice and water). Mix apple juice and sparkling water for a homemade fizzy drink.
  6. Optional energy boost for active children e.g. flapjack, currant bun, jam sandwich, banana.

And if you want to know what foreign food children eat, see News Views.

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