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Back to school: Get out of the lunchbox rut

Back to school: Get out of the lunchbox rut

Tips to help out with the inevitable question: what to put in the lunchbox?

With so many different breads to try, even the fussiest 'white bread and jam' child is bound to find something else that appeals. Wean white bread fanatics onto the more filling, lasting grain bread with rainbow sandwiches – one slice white and one or two slices grain. With three slices of bread you can keep fillings separate, which may appeal to some children.

  • Mash hard-boiled eggs with mayonnaise and chopped parsley. Spread on lightly buttered wholemeal bread.
  • Try small grain rolls with avocado, turkey and cranberry; or tuna, avocado and lettuce; or roast beef, chutney and tomato.
  • Split bagels and fill with light cream cheese, smoked salmon and cucumber. For the more adventurous, add dill or capers.
  • Fill pita bread with hummus and grated carrot or pesto, cottage cheese and alfalfa sprouts.
  • Spread fruit or walnut bread with soft feta, ricotta or light cream cheese.
  • Keep serves small. Two mini rolls or bagels look more appealing than one big one. Slice sandwiches in triangles or three fingers.
  • Some children are very happy with plain old Vegemite or peanut butter. When buying peanut butter, choose one with no added salt or sugar.
  • Cheese crunchies: Spread leftover bread with Vegemite and grated cheese, slice and bake in the oven until crunchy. Great for kids who don't like sandwiches.

Sandwiches every day – no matter how interesting – can get boring. Try these ideas for a change:

  • Left-over fried rice
  • Brown rice salad with currants, nuts, celery, grated carrot
  • Leftover pasta
  • Quiche or frittata baked in large muffin pans
  • Soup in a thermos
  • Mini meatballs with a small container of tomato sauce or salsa
  • Vegetable patties – try salmon and corn fritters or grated vegetable patties
  • Vita-Weet crackers with peanut butter or Vegemite
  • Hard-boiled egg – peel for young children, decorate the shell for older kids
  • Pizza made on small pita bread
  • Sushi
  • Small can tuna (for older children) pack with a few cherry tomatoes, some avocado in its skin and a small fork
  • Small can baked beans

Vegetables can make sandwiches go soggy. Pack them separately. Try carrot sticks, capsicum slices, cherry tomatoes, snow peas, sprouts, celery sticks filled with peanut butter.

Fresh fruit is easier to eat when it is already cut or sliced. Squeeze lemon juice on apple quarters or halves to stop browning. Pack in a separate clear container so it looks attractive.

Fruit jelly: if kids won't eat fresh fruit, try setting chopped fruit in homemade jelly of half juice and water.

Fruit yoghurt: add chopped fruit to honey yoghurt or swirl honey and frozen berries through natural yoghurt. Chill or freeze.

  • Popcorn (pop your own – it's cheaper and healthier)
  • Fruit muffins, date or cheese scones, date and walnut loaf, carrot and nut cake
  • Homemade muesli bar, perhaps with some drizzled chocolate over the top
  • Dried fruit and nuts – dates, apricots or raisins, raw nuts, pistachio nuts in their shells
  • Scroggin – mix dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and some yoghurt-coated raisins or dark chocolate chopped in small pieces
  • Frozen yoghurt (spoon some into a small container and freeze overnight)
  • Oatmeal pancakes (made with rolled oats, milk, egg, banana, self-raising flour and sugar). These are great for breakfast and lunch.

A healthy lunchbox needs to give children enough energy to fuel their body and brain or the five or six hours they are at school. Carbohydrate foods such as bread, pasta, rice, fruit, milk and yoghurt are good energy foods. Ideally, a lunchbox also has some protein food, both for nutritional value and to help children last until afternoon tea time. It should include some fruit or vegetables as part of a child's 5+ a day minimum. And of course, every lunchbox needs something sweet and a bottle of water for hydration.

Energy food: bread, crackers, rice, pasta
Lasting food: cheese, nuts, peanut butter, lean meat, chicken, yoghurt, milk
Fresh fruit or vegetables: carrot sticks, baby tomatoes, snow peas, capsicum
Sweet: biscuit, slice, cake, dried fruit

  • Choose a lunchbox that is easy to wash and dry every night.
  • Keep hot foods hot (over 60ºC) and cold foods cold (under 4ºC).
  • Encourage kids to eat any chilled or high-protein foods such as ham,
    chicken, meat, fish and dairy at morning tea, if possible.
  • Creamed rice (better for older kids because of the can)
  • Up and Go
  • Yakult
  • Flavoured milk (freeze overnight)
  • Carton of fruit in juice
  • Yoghurt squeezables (chill or freeze overnight)
  • Mini boxes of raisins
  • Mother Earth fruit bars

From 1 June 2008, all state and state-integrated schools who sell food should be offering only healthy options. People have quite different views on what 'healthy' is so the Ministry of Health, after extensive consultation with nutrition experts, has come up with a three-tiered system that classifies food as 'everyday', 'sometimes' or 'occasional'.

Schools and early childhood centres should provide food from just the 'everyday' and 'sometimes' groups. Food in the 'sometimes' category should feature less on the tuck-shop menu than the 'everyday' foods and needs to be in appropriate serving sizes. This means that a small slice of banana cake is fine but a huge piece slathered with icing is probably not.

'Occasional' foods such as lollies, deep-fried foods and full-sugar fizzy drinks should only be available about once a term, e.g. at a school fair. Schools can still sell chocolates and have sausage sizzles for fund-raising, but they are encouraged to look for alternatives so they give a consistent message about healthy eating.

So can you still put biscuits in your child's lunchbox? Yes. These changes only apply to what schools provide and not what comes in the lunchbox from home.

First published: Feb 2008

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