There are three kinds of moms. Those who embrace lunchboxes for their kids and spend time cutting vegetables into cute shapes and posting beautiful Bento boxes to Instagram; those who enjoy putting some effort into school lunches, and those, like me, who throw things into a box without much thought or effort, hoping my child will eat them.
If you’re like me and want to make a bit more effort, or if you’re keen to prepare your child a more balanced lunch, or if you’re just looking to add something awesome to the lunchbox, here are some tips from Abby Courtenay, a Cape Town-based dietitian (and remember – you don’t need to create Pinterest-worthy lunchboxes to ace your kids’ school lunches).
Step 1: Get a good quality lunch container or a cooler bag
- Ensure it is a strong container that will protect the food from being squashed!
- Get your kids involved in choosing a suitable lunchbox for themselves that’s easy to open and carry.
- Have smaller containers available for dips, sauces or cut-up fruit.
- Use a reusable ice pack for food that needs to be kept cool.
- Remember to wash out the lunchbox daily!
Step 2: Make sure the lunchbox has all the right food components
Variety is key, so try your best to swap things around as often as possible. Include the following:
- Lean proteins: Leftover chicken, slices of roast beef, biltong, tuna/salmon ‘packs’, low-fat cottage cheese, grated mozzarella cheese, boiled eggs/crustless quiche/frittata, plain yoghurt or legumes (like beans, lentils and chickpeas).
- Healthy starch (minimally processed and high-fibre options): Corn (canned/ frozen), brown/wild rice, chickpeas (tinned), heat and eat high-fibre grains (like barley), high-fibre crackers (like Provita/corncakes) or seed/rye bread. Occasionally wholegrain wraps or pasta make for a nice change of pace.
- Plant fat: Avo, olive oil dressing, olives, olive tapenade, pesto or mayonnaise.
- Vegetables: Plenty of vegetables, salads and/or vegetable soups. Raw veggie sticks are often accepted by children and give the lunchbox a lovely range of bright colours! Use cookie cutters to cut up your veggies to make them more interesting and appealing to children and offer a dip (like plain yoghurt and tahini/tzatziki/cottage cheese/peanut satay, etc.) with the veggies to entice even the fussiest of eaters!
- Tuna mayo, chickpea and whole-wheat pasta salad
- Sandwich with seed loaf, cold meats and salad
- Finger foods like a boiled mealie, sugar snap peas, Rosa tomatoes and cucumber slices with cottage cheese (mix some basil pesto in)
- Whole-wheat wraps with veggies
- Tuna mayo and chickpea salad
- Pesto, brown rice and roast vegetable salad
In addition to this add:
Fruit: Have a fruit with meals or in between meals as a quick and easy snack. Again, fruit pairs well with a dip like a peanut butter and yoghurt dip for apples, pears or bananas. Choose fresh fruit instead of fruit juice. Fruit juice is void of fibre and will not keep your child feeling fuller for longer.
Add extras: Nuts, trail mix, biltong, dried fruit bars, popcorn etc
Step 3: Get your child involved in packing the lunchbox
Remember that children like to be involved in what they eat, and it is important to respect their food preferences. A great way to get kids to buy into what you are making, is to let them help choose what‘s on the menu. Some children feel safe with the same predictable sandwich, while others are adventurous with their food choices and will love variety.
“… children like to be involved in what they eat, and it is important to respect their food preferences.”
Always make sure that your child has enough food for the day. Think about if they need a meal or snack as well as if there are any extra mural activities after school.
In addition to this, use this opportunity to talk to your child about nutrition and help them make healthy associations (i.e. yoghurt and milk help make your bones strong or salmon/ sardines feed your brain).
Step 4: Limit unhealthy snacks and treats
A treat and a snack are not the same things! If your child’s lunchbox is filled with chips, chocolates and sweets they will automatically eat them out of habit or purely because they are available. Don’t let treats become a habit and something your child expects every day. While treats are not ‘bad’ they are also not everyday foods.
Step 5: Be aware of your drinks
Avoid packing cold drinks, juices and flavoured sweetened waters and rather opt for plain or sparkling water. Some children love ice-cold water and so an old trick that works really well is to freeze a bottle of water and allow it to act as an ice pack for your child’s lunchbox, as well as a refreshing bottle of cold water for throughout the day.
Some of the lunchbox things my son has loved over the years include the following:
- Food cut into shapes: I use biscuit cutters for bread and softer foods, and have often used a vegetable peeler to get interesting veggie shapes.
- Pop a treat into their lunchbox: A weekly surprise treat (if the school allows it) will be much loved. Mix it up with different treats for fun.
- Leave a note: If your child can’t read, you can leave little notes with pictures for them. For older kids, write notes. These can be notes of love (I love you always), motivation (you will be awesome today!), or encouragement (you can do this!). You can even leave jokes if your child is old enough to understand – just Google some knock-knock jokes.
- Ask your children what they want: It took me ages to realise that the yoghurt I was packing in my son’s lunchbox every day wasn’t being eaten. Instead of just guesswork, I try to get his involvement, and chat every few weeks about what he wants in his lunchbox. It helps that he eats fruit and veggies, otherwise I’d probably have to use his list and mix it up a bit.