It's that time of year again. Holidays are nearly over and back to school the kiddies go. So, what are you going to pack them for lunch? If you're like me, you want to give them the most nutritious food but it has to be quick and simple to prepare. Here are my top tips for building a healthy lunch box, that even the fussiest eaters will enjoy.
1. Add Protein
For me this is the central and the most important component of my the kids lunch box. Proteins are typically high in nutrients such as iron, zinc, B12 and omega 3, all essential for growth and development. Protein will help keep their blood sugar levels stable throughout the day, helping them stay focused and calm. Aim for their palm size portion at lunch and a slightly smaller portion for morning tea.
Grass fed meats-lamb cutlets, sausages or homemade meat balls/meat loaf
Poultry- chicken thighs or boiled eggs
Sustainable caught & BPA FREE tinned fish-tuna, salmon or sardines
*not raw fish because of risk of food poisoning. have these freshly made at home or at a such restaurant.
Legumes-cooked beans, lentils or chickpeas. Try roasted for added crunch.
Dairy products-whole milk natural yogurt and cheeses
2. Add Healthy Fats
Fats are an essential part of everyone's diet, especially kids. They are the building blocks of hormones, are required for the synthesis of vitamin D, form the structure of all our cell membranes and are highly concentrated in the brain tissue. My top picks are extra virgin cold pressed olive oil, fish oils (found naturally in fish as above), avocados, organic egg yolks (I like making homemade mayonnaise), chia seeds (make into chia pudding or add to bliss balls, smoothies, or baking) and grass fed butter.
But not all fats are healthy. My sworn enemies include hydrogenated fats, margarines and seed AKA "vegetable" oils (sunflower, canola, grapeseed, rapeseed, cottonseed). They are rancid fats containing highly inflammatory omega 6 and often the culprit for elevating LDL or "bad" cholesterol. Think you are avoiding these? Be sure to check food labels as they are very commonly sued in processed foods, even ones you thought were healthy. Like sultanas, often coated in sunflower oil and commercial crackers including vita wheats contain vegetable oils.
3. Plant Based Foods: A Serve of Vegetables (or two-three) + A Piece of Fresh Fruit
Vegetables are the trickiest one for most parents. I hear a lot of parents in my clinic say, "oh he/she just won't eat vegetables". If this is the case, you've got to get a little creative and bear in mind that it takes a child (and adults) up to 30 exposures to a food before they will tolerate or even like it. Think about the first time you ate an oyster or had a coffee. I bet you didn't love it the first time! Keep trying, don't give up. Put it in their lunch box or on their plate. Don't make a fuss if they don't eat it. Just keep exposing them to vegetables at every meal.
Personally, I just cut up cucumbers, carrots, cherry tomatoes, slice/dice an avocado or throw in leftover steamed broccoli or roast vegetables. I know my kids like this kind of thing (mostly) so I just roll with that. My kids do have their moments though and sometimes I have to pull some tricks to get vegetables into them.
Ideas for hiding vegetables:
Smoothies. I love a sneaky zucchini in a banana or mango smoothie!
Add grated vegetables, such as carrot or zucchini to muffins, meat balls or pasta sauce.
4. Complex Carbohydrates + Fibre
Kids need carbohydrates to fuel their brains as the brain depends on glucose for fuel. We want complex carbohydrates because they are digested slower and therefore the glucose enters the blood steam slower, avoiding blood sugar spikes. Simple carbs and sugars (think lollies, white bread, commercial breakfast cereals, white flours and cakes) are like a hit and run. They hit you quick then leave you feeling frazzled, moody, dazed and pretty crappy.
What makes carbs "complex"? Fibre. Not only does fibre slow down glucose absorption to fuel you longer but it also helps keep the kiddies regular (poop) by providing fuel for gut bacteria and adding bulk to their stools. Kids 4-8 years need about 18g of fibre a day, 9-13 years 20-24g and 14-18 years 22-28g. Most kids I see in clinic initially, are eating about half, if not less than this.
My top picks for complex carbs and fibre:
Legumes eg. black beans 1 cup=15g fibre (think black bean brownies), 1 cup split peas=16.3g fibre (think dahl)
Wholegrains e.g. Sourdough bread 1 slice= 1.5g fibre, 1/2 cup rolled oats 4.5g fibre (bircher muesli or added to a smoothie), pearled barley 1/2 cup=3g fibre (pearl barley soup) and San Remo pulse pasta per serve (125g)= 16.9g fibre (what kid doesn't like pasta!).
Fruits-raspberries 1 cup=8g fibre, 1 medium pear=5.5g, 1 apple=4.4g fibre, 1 banana=3.1g fibre and 1/2 avocado=6.7g fibre.
Vegetables-1 cup sweet potato=4g, 1/2 cup cooked peas=4.4g fibre and the best are brussels sprouts, broccoli and green beans!
Other-1 tablespoon chia seeds=5g fibre.
5. A Serve of Calcium Rich Foods (Dairy or Non-Dairy)
Calcium is required for strong healthy bones, you don't need me to tell you that! But how much does you little one need? Quite a lot.
Calcium Requirements For Children:
How much calcium is in foods?
1 slice of cheddar cheese= 200mg
1 cup whole milk=275mg
100gm almonds=264mg (i know you can't take these to school!)
1 Tbspn tahini=65mg
30g chia seeds=177mg
2 dried figs=92mg
Now can you see why I highlighted calcium?! It can be a real bugger to get enough of. I don't recommend over doing it on the dairy either as high consumption of dairy products is linked to iron deficiency anaemia, particularly in preschool aged kids. All your green vegetables (the ones the kids love so much) are packed full of calcium as an alternative, as are seeds (and seed butters) and if your child isn't allergic, give them serving of nuts at home.
So, now you know exactly what to put in your kid's lunch box, I just want to make a point about the importance of what you pack their lunch in.
Most of us are aware that for the sake of the environment it is time that we waved goodbye to plastic sandwich bags and excessive plastic packaging. But what do you use instead?
The most common lunch boxes for kids are the Tupperware-style plastic containers. While these are reused (until your child looses them!) and are better for the environment in that sense than the disposable plastic bags, they, unfortunately aren't better for our health.
Even the marketed 'safe' BPA-free containers still contain other nasty substances that can potentially leach into our children's food.
So to help you make the best choice for your kids I've given you my favourite safe lunch box alternatives:
Planet Box - https://www.planetbox.com
Lunch Bots - https://www.lunchbots.com
Yum Bots - https://www.yumboxlunch.com
I hope that has given you some ideas on how to build and pack a nourishing and balanced lunch box. Remember those 5 steps when building your child's lunch (or putting their meals together) to achieve nutritional balance. Not every meal will be perfect. If you are feeding them whole foods, you are doing a fantastic job and setting them up for a lifetime of nutritional and developmental success!
If you're feeling bit in a spin, you might like to buy my e-book, Starting Solids. It's not just for babies. The BONUS Kitchen Companion is packed full of easy family and allergy friendly recipes that use all these fab nutrient dense foods. Or if you think you might need some personalised advice and support, you can book a face to face or Skype consult here.