Healthy lunches for back to school

Healthy lunches for back to school
Making lunch enjoyable and healthy is a worthwhile challenge writes Ruadhán Jones

It can be tempting to bow to our kids desire for a steady crisp and sweet supply, especially given the unusual back-to-school circumstances. Equally, it can be hard to imagine sending them off with a lunch box full of ‘rabbit food’, also known as salads. But the challenge of thinking of healthy and exciting school lunches is a worthwhile one.

Here are just a few simple, fast ideas for delicious lunches and how to get your child to eat them. There’s a huge variety of choices out there, so it’s good to remember the basics, which are

  • Starchy foods like bread, rice, potatoes or pasta
  • Protein foods like meat, fish, eggs or beans
  • A dairy item, like cheese or yogurt
  • Vegetables or salad and a portion of fruit

It’s easy to forget, but fluids are an essential part of school lunches. In the end, water and milk are the most suitable drinks for children. Because of its natural sugar content, unsweetened fruit juice should only be consumed with meals and ideally diluted (one part juice to ten parts water).

Try and bear these in mind when crafting the lunches and you won’t ever go far wrong. Lunch makes up a third of our daily nutritional needs, so putting some thought and planning into them is important.

Get kids involved

It’s surely the dream of many parents to have their child making their own lunch. It teaches them valuable life skills and also allows mams and dads a little extra breathing space in the mornings. However, children will quite happily eat their favourite food every day, so there has to be a bit of give and take.

While kids might be resistant to healthy lunches, which don’t frequently include crisps, chocolates or sweets, getting them involved in planning and making can make a big difference. Equally, letting them pick out their own lunchbox, adding stickers or designs if they’re inclined, can help them become more interested in their lunches.

To get children to fully buy in will require forward thinking and patience. Children often need to see and taste new foods several times before accepting them, so try out new ideas at teatime or the weekend before to get them accustomed. If your child is a fussy eater, a bit of quid pro quo wouldn’t go amiss – a healthy sandwich with a sweet snack say, or their favourite food but no sweets. Sometimes, however, no will simply have to mean no.

Sandwiches and salads

One of the ways to get around your child’s reluctance when it comes to healthy foods is to vary the contents. It doesn’t always have to be a sandwich with some salad. A nice flask of soup, curry or even Swedish meatballs can be ideal for a winter’s day. If it’s a bit warmer, a pasta salad, or perhaps a chicken salad, can be equally filling and flavoursome.

But sandwiches are still a staple for a reason – they’re simple to prepare and the fillings can be varied easily. Cheese, meat and some lettuce and tomato cover most of the bases. Ideally, the meat should be lean cuts like chicken breasts rather than processed meats like ham, but both are fine in moderation.

If you want to spice up the sandwich experience, there are plenty of ways to do it. You could change the bread, for instance – try using wholemeal or soda breads for a heartier meal, or change it up entirely by going for a wrap. One of my favourite recipes was tuna, cheese, sweetcorn and lettuce, quick to whip up and also providing me with my fish intake for the week.

Pasta salads are another good variation to have in the back pocket. This can be especially easy to do the day after a pasta dish – make extra pasta when cooking and separate it out before it makes it to the table. Ingredients can be changed depending on tastes, but cheese and pesto combined with peas or beans gives a dish full of starch, protein and dairy. Alternatively, you could add in chicken or ham chopped into chunks.

Hot foods are little trickier and aren’t suitable for young children. However, if your child is old enough, they are filling feasts in a flask. A nice tomato or chicken soup can be made in bulk, with bread and butter to accompany it. Equally, a lentil and veg curry is both hearty and nutritious.

Sweet swaps

We all like sweet things, but too much of a good thing quickly turns it into a bad thing. We used to get a treat every Friday, a little reward for getting through the week and something which we genuinely looked forward to. Equally, while too much sugar is not good, removing it entirely is also unproductive.

Finding healthy and enjoyable ways to include some sweetness is important, providing a variety for the tastebuds. Fruits, like strawberries, raspberries and so on, are succulent replacements, but not always well received. However, mixed with a little yoghurt and honey, it can be a different prospect.

A great sweet and reasonably healthy lunch time dessert is overnight oats. True, they take a bit more effort than simply mixing yoghurt and honey, but they must be made the night before which frees up time in the morning. The recipe below is quite basic and can easily be varied according to taste.

The ingredients you’ll need are:

  • ¼ tsp ground cinnamon
  • 50g rolled porridge oats
  • 2 tbsp natural yogurt
  • 50g mixed berries
  • drizzle of honey
  • ½ tbsp nut butter

Making the oats requires two simple steps:

1– The night before serving, stir the cinnamon and 100ml water (or milk) into your oats with a pinch of salt.

2– The next day, loosen with a little more water (or milk) if needed. Top with the yogurt, berries, a drizzle of honey and the nut butter.

What you get is effectively a no-cook porridge, though the oats retain their shape and texture. It only needs two hours to ‘cook’ in the fridge but leaving it overnight will give the best texture.

Making the most

Whatever you decide to make, try and make the most of what you have and what your child likes. Don’t be afraid to use up dinner leftovers for the next day. It can make a quick and nutritious alternative to a sandwich. Many meal leftovers such as pasta, noodles and tortillas are just as good when eaten at room temperature, while others can be kept warm in thermal containers which often come with a spoon and fork attached.

Equally, it’s important to take note of what your child is and isn’t eating. While it will take a while for them to get used to a new food, seeing what’s being left in the lunchbox will help you adapt your meal plans. It could be that they’re tired of it; it could be that they don’t like it.

Either way, minimising waste and ensuring they’re getting the most out of their meals will mean less work for you. This will help you make a list of lunch options that can be added to and changed over time. Having a nice and healthy lunch makes a big difference to the day and with planning and patience, it can be done.