Packed lunches. They can be a delight or bane of our lives. The hassle of agreeing what goes in, the confusion about what to buy, making them and then worrying if your child will even eat it!
Last week I spoke on BBC Breakfast about this exact challenge. Action for children released a report that showed 75% of British parents with children aged 5 to 13 who make a school lunchbox admit to feeling guilty about what they pack, according to new research released today.
The most common items in a packed lunch include a ham sandwich, packet of crisps and an apple and a yoghurt but parents are worried these are not healthy enough.
The top reasons for packing such items were (1) fear their child would not eat something else and (2) the need for an easy life.
As a busy parent myself, I understand feeling time poor and how easy it is to slip into eating 'samey'. It's less hassle to 'do the usual', especially if the kids don't moan but there is that niggling voice that says 'try harder'.
I also understand how confusing it can be to find healthy options we know the kids will like when we go shopping because food labels are about as clear as mud. We have been warned a thousand times and more about sugar......fat.....carbs.........overweight.....obesity.......more sugar.......soft drinks and from a professional point of view I know parents are going round in circles about what they 'should' be doing food wise.
Going back a few years now, only 1% of packed lunches met the nutritional standards applied to school meals so this is nothing new but I doubt this figure has changed significantly.
If you have a good healthy packed lunch policy at your child's school, you may well be more informed than most parents about what to put in your child's lunchbox. This is not mandatory but in the minefield that is food aimed at children and conflicting messages about healthy eating, I think parents need as much support from the school as possible.
However, I don't believe a packed lunch policy should be draconian. Informative yes, constructive and realistic, yes. I believe in helping parents make small changes and taking simple steps to improve lunches over time. We live in an age when good ol' veggie sticks are having to compete with squishy yoghurts and cartoon cheese strings.
A packed lunch should of course provide a balanced range of foods to meet around 1/3 of their nutritional requirements but it's also an opportunity to introduce new foods, textures, flavours and have a positive conversation about food health and bodies!
So here's some reassurance and tips to get you feeling more empowered about what to put in your child's' packed lunch and how to manage change.
- It's all about balance
Children need energy. Lots of it! Scientists have recently discovered that youngsters have greater energy levels than professional endurance athletes! Combined with short recovery periods, it's no wonder us adults can't keep up but this is why we can feel our children eat continuously, like they have hollow legs! They will need to eat more frequently than we do but this can make it difficult to provide healthy options ALL the time.
I tend to recommend the 80:20 approach. If you can make healthier choices 80% of the time, you don't need to worry too much about the remaining 20%.
Don't be frightened of white bread, it is not 'pure sugar' despite what you may have seen on the telly. If you make sandwiches with white bread or rolls, adding some protein such as ham, tuna, salmon, egg, cream cheese, hummus or peanut butter will slow down the rate of digestion and give them a more steady release of energy. Bulk out sandwiches with cucumber, grated carrot, beetroot or tomato to add extra nutrition.
I find some children find wholemeal bread too filling - it may be ideal for adults to have most of the time but small children have little stomachs and high fibre foods can sometimes lessen their appetite - this is not always a good thing if they are on a growth spurt.
We may often go for a sliced loaf but why not try a bagel, English muffin, sandwich thin, pitta bread, flat bread or tortilla wrap for a change. 50:50 bread is often a good compromise for children.
Crackers, rice cakes or bread sticks can be a nice change, served with a dip or cheese and a boiled egg. Quiche / flan, pasta or rice dishes can also be options and a good way to use up leftovers. Mini frittatas that you make in muffin tins are quick and easy and a way you can add a few veggies, covert style.
A slice of fruit bread or malt loaf is a nice option as a break time snack (if allowed) or after school snack instead of a biscuit or cake every day.
- Yes, watch the sugar
Much of the sugar that children will have will come from processed foods; some cereals, cereal bars, biscuits, yoghurts, desserts / puddings, soft drinks, fruit juices and sauces (like ketchup and BBQ). Our concern is about the added sugars, not those existing naturally in (whole) fruit and milk.
Fruit juice can be an easy way to get fruit into children easily. There are however, around 3-4 medium oranges in a 250ml glass of juice which provides around 22g of sugar. This is why we are recommended to have only 150ml of pure juice at a time and this is best at meal times, to lessen the sugar 'hit'.
When it comes to yoghurt, choose ones with no added sugar if you can or ones with a low-moderate sugar content (this means they have between 5-10g sugar per 100g of product). The lower the better but high sugar foods (that have more than 22g sugar per 100g) should not be an everyday item.
Kids yoghurts like petit filous contain around 10g (2 tsp) sugar per 100g which isn't astronomical but when recommendations are to limit added sugar to ~6 tsp's a day for children, you can see how quickly it adds up. Tube yoghurts like Frubes contain about the same sugar as a petit filous but if they only have one tube (recommendation is 2?!) it's half the sugar compared to a big pot petit filous. I would avoid low fat products as these are often laden with added sugar.
My 6 year old likes plain yoghurt (which is often lower in sugar) and I add maybe 1/2 teaspoon of honey or maple syrup, some blueberries or other fresh berries (squished if you like) or frozen mixed berries to sweeten it a bit, so I'm in control of the sugar. It's also cheaper and more eco friendly to buy a 1kg tub of yoghurt and put some in a small plastic pot for lunch.
Kids fruit bars (like fruit bowl school bars or yoghurt coated raisins) although marketed as 1 of your 5 a day have a lot of added sugar in them so are categorised as high sugar. Bear fruit 'Yo Yo's' have no added sugar so are better than the school bars but me mindful they are still high in sugar because they are made from fruit that is dried slowly. So although they are not made from concentrated fruit, there is a concentration process that happens. To be honest, they are a bit like flavoured sultanas or raisins but at least 6 times the price.
I like dried fruit as a snack because it gives a good energy boost but also provides fibre, vitamins and minerals, unlike a jammy dodger. Mix sultanas / raisins / dried apricot / dried apple with some fresh fruit (grapes cut in half length-ways, strawberries, pieces of satsuma, kiwi fruit etc) for a bit more interest. There are only so many apples and bananas we can eat before getting bored with them, so they end up being left or chucked in the bin.
You can of course make your own goodies to go in a lunch box. Flapjacks or muffins usually stand up to being thrown around and there are plenty more lower sugar recipes available online like these ones, just google it!
- Variety is key
Just as we can get bored of food, so can children. I am a huge fan of making food fun and sometimes we just need to find some head space to think outside the box. Using different colours and textures can help prevent beige boredom. A pick n mix style lunch box can help you achieve this. I use a bento box (or yum box) with different compartments in it. You don't need to be a creative genius or have hours of spare time and you never know, you just might enjoy this too!
Try different ways of preparing veg or fruit - grated carrot may be accepted more than carrot sticks. Use a crinkle chip cutter or other shape cutters to make cucumber, peppers, melon or apple more appealing. The you can create your own names for your creations - get your kids involved as their imagination is often less suppressed than ours!
- Be Consistent
Kids can be fussy. This is an entirely normal part of growing up with almost 50% of children going through a fussy stage in their early years, which may extend to the teenage years for some.
Sometimes this will be about the child testing boundaries (and what they can get away with) but they are also learning to trust food and the decisions they make about eating. This requires a low pressure environment but a consistent approach to family eating (such as limiting alternatives or providing no alternatives to meals / food offered).
There is much truth in the fact that children need to be exposed to a new food at least 10 times before they decide if they actually like it. So if they say they don't like it, don't give up.
Positive role modelling is essential when it comes to encouraging healthy eating habits. We can't expect our children to eat what we don't, so all your other meal times will help support what you are trying to achieve when your child eats at school.
- Get them involved
As much as we think we can get the job done faster (and better!), doing everything for our kids when it comes to food prep can mean we make a rod for our own back. It may get messy but getting kids involved in the food they eat can give them a sense of control and independence.
My son has free school dinners but when we make a packed lunch or picnic, he helps make the sandwiches. He gets a great sense of satisfaction having buttered his bread and putting in the filling. We talk about what he can have so we both agree what's going in. I explain why the foods he is having are good for him and why he can't have too many of certain things. I am open to negotiating and compromising on both sides so he appreciates boundaries but trusts me and what I suggest he does.
He loves to bake so getting the kids on a baking spree on a Sunday afternoon can be a great way to save some prep time.
Let's face it, we all love praise and rewards. Using a reward chart can be a very effective way to track the changes you are trying to make in terms of eating habits. You could set a challenge to try 1 new food / veggie each week, to eat so many portions of veg each day / week or to eat 4 colours a day.......and then offer a prize at the end.
I would not recommend using a food based reward as I don't think it's necessarily very healthy for children to associate chocolate, sweets, cake or MaccyD's with feeling good or happy. Some studies have shown that children prefer non-food rewards, so talk to them about what they'd like to have or do. It could simply be a trip to the park, mum / dad time, some stickers or making something. You could make a reward chart together, again so they feel they have input.
I hope these tips have given you some food for thought. I've provided a couple of links below that you may find helpful....pop any questions in the comments below or contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org