School lunches have changed so much since I was a kid. There’s much more pressure to provide healthier options, and there are also restrictions on what you can pack due to an increase in allergies in school kids.
My five year old starts school next week and I know it’s going to be challenging to pack lunches that she’ll eat happily, but I don’t want to give her a ham and cheese sandwich every day just because it’s easy either.
So I spoke to Emily Dupuche, mum and author of cookbook Food Babies Love, because with three school aged kids she has packed many lunches, and I wanted to pick her brain for lunchbox ideas. Emily wrote her book to share her experiences of introducing her twins Sophie and Louis who were born prematurely (now eight years old) to food, starting with purees before leading into recipes for homemade family dinners and snacks.
“It was a gradual transition as they learnt to deal with texture and then chunks and ultimately learn to use cutlery,” says Emily. “Lots of recipes from my book now feature in their lunchboxes.”
I read Emily’s book when my daughter started solids and what I’ve learned from several years of dealing with her food fussiness, is that constantly offering and cooking different foods so that kids have a broad diet has a huge impact on later years. Kids won’t like everything they eat but if they have been given enough foods to try between their baby and school years, the more foods they’ll like and the more ingredients you’ll be able to combine and put in a lunchbox.
So whether you’re a first time kindy mum feeling overwhelmed by having to pack lunch five days a week (like me), or you’re just bored from making the same types of lunches for your kids every term, here are some tips from Emily for making fuss-free, healthy lunchboxes that actually get eaten.
Emily with her three children, eight year old twins Sophie and Louis, and five year old Gigi.
Now that your kids are old enough to be in school, how did you adjust your food preparations from lunches cooked at home to school lunchboxes?
I always try to make sure that my kids have a well balanced lunchbox with protein, vegetables, fruit and dairy, like yogurt or cheese. Sandwiches are handy but to be honest I sway more to leftovers in a thermos (such as fried rice, dumplings, curry, pasta etc) or homemade savoury muffins, zucchini slices etc. They are far more nutritious than a vegemite sandwich and my kids prefer this style of eating . Lunch thermos containers are an essential lunchbox item.
What would you put in your kids lunch boxes on a typical day and how you ensure your kids get plenty of variety?
Plan your weekly shop to ensure that you have lots of different foods in the house. I also find that a combination of a thermos lunch a few days a week and sandwiches helps with variety.
Each week I bake a treat so they have something sweet each day. This could be a banana slice, muesli slice, hedgehog, power biccies or muffins. They also get cut up fruit and or veggie sticks with hummus to dip for morning tea.
The main lunch is often a hot lunch from the thermos or if it's sandwiches I try to include protein via ham or chicken (fresh cooked chicken dressed with mayo and mango chutney is a fave). For yoghurt I give them small tubs of natural Greek yoghurt (much cheaper and healthier than squeeze pouches). Décor have a range of small plastic tubs that are great for this.
Lots of recipes from my book still feature including the zucchini slice, keftedes, muffins, all the pastas and of course my range of fresh pots are all based from the book! The fresh pots are all natural, preservative-free meals for babies and toddlers but they can be used for school lunches too.
Bento and Yumboxes seem to be the latest trend for school lunches, with small trays full of different foods for kids to eat. Do you think these are filling enough?
I do, and they are great for helping parents to think beyond sandwiches. The yumboxes that have labelled compartments for protein, dairy, fruit, etc are great for ensuring variety.
Is there anything you won’t pack for your kids for lunch?
Squeeze pouches of any description. This includes fruit purees and yoghurt. The fruit ones are heat treated and the yoghurt ones have heaps of sugar. It’s really hard for parents as these things are marketed for kids but they contain no nutritional value.
I also never pack white bread jam or honey sandwiches. I always use a quality wholemeal grain bread to at least give them a little more sustenance than processed white bread offers.
Convenience is a huge factor in parents choosing pre-packaged foods over fresh foods when it comes to school lunches. What packaged options are best when parents can’t make lunch from scratch on really busy days?
Organisation is the key here. If you walk through the health food aisle at the supermarket you will see a lots of healthier snacking options than a packet of chips. Farmers Union Greek Yogurt comes in small tubs like the old Yoplait ones that are great for convenience. Supermarkets also sell bags of carrot sticks now which makes that easy and you can even buy mini tubs of hommus. A tin of tuna or salmon is always a great fall back too.
Because lunches generally have to be made fresh so that they don’t get soggy overnight, what are some ways parents can be organised and plan ahead without rushing on school mornings?
Again, serving leftovers is really quick and easy. You can also pre-cut fruit and veggie sticks, decant yogurt and dips into tubs the night before, and have frozen baked treats on hand such as muffins and pikelets which will thaw in the lunch box.
Even the most lovingly prepared lunches can sometimes go uneaten or get thrown in the bin. What do you think is the best way to make sure a fussy eater eats their lunch, especially in the early school years?
Uneaten lunches break my heart. My son is so busy playing sport at lunch that to get him to sit still long enough to eat is a real challenge. I’ve even had to speak to his teachers about ensuring he’s had a good go at it before being let out to play.
Don’t overpack the lunch box and talk them about the importance of food to fuel the brain and body. When they don’t eat and come home tired and cranky with an empty tank, explain this is because they didn’t eat. Reward charts are good too.
If you kids won’t eat veggie sticks then just keep persevering and serving them with dips and cheese cubes. Eventually they will try them and be surprised at how good they are.
Do you ever allow your children to indulge in lunch from the canteen and if so how often do you allow your kids to have treats?
They get one lunch order a term. They always choose sushi so I don’t have to worry too much, but yes I do allow treats. Life is about balance and moderation and let’s be honest, I love a good treat too! It’s really important to empower your children to make good choices. Educate them about what are good and bad food choices and also to learn when they have had enough. My daughter loves a good splurge at a birthday party and there are times I have to remind her to ‘back away from the party table’.
Simple Ways To Make Lunchboxes Healthier
Use protein in sandwiches as it will fill up little tummies for longer, rather than just peanut butter, Vegemite or cheese alone.
Try using leftover meats for sandwiches and salads such as chicken or pork from dinner the night before rather than deli sliced meats which tend to be higher in salt.
Chopped up fruits such as oranges and pears, are more likely to get eaten by younger kids than whole fruits. The same goes for wraps – cut them up into rounds so they’re less intimidating.
Use tasty or real cheddar cheese rather than processed cheese slices.
Try brown rice in homemade sushi.
Spread avocado, pesto, hard boiled egg and tzatziki on sandwiches and crackers rather than using butter all the time.
Sprinkle some chia seeds into yoghurt for an extra hit of nutrition.
On hot days (when kids don’t have as much of an appetite) pop fruits such as grapes and watermelon in the freezer for a while before packing them in the lunchbox as a novelty.