How to pack health into school lunches

How to pack health into school lunches
Packing school lunches can be a struggle, but there are ways to ensure even the pickiest eaters are healthfully fed, writes Jason Osborne

I must have caused some headaches at times in my house as a child, so picky were my eating habits. It only dawned on me in adulthood what a monumental task it is to put together lunches every day for school that are not only healthy, but edible – particularly when childhood is often the heyday of culinary fussiness, as it was for me.

Getting a child to eat healthy school lunches is surely a challenge in this sugar and fat saturated age, but there are ways to prepare meals full of vitamins, minerals and nutrients, that will ensure your child doesn’t grow just in intellect during their early schooling years, but in health, too.

Here I’ll share some tips that got me eating, and that seem to be staples in the arsenal against food-fussiness.

Making fun lunches

Children are highly visually-oriented, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to be influenced by the way their meals look. Quirky shapes and bright, varied colours can tempt a child to pick it up and take a bite faster than something that looks, quite simply, boring.

This isn’t to say you need to spend hours colouring, dying or carving food – maybe just spend a little extra time arranging the lunch, using a cutter of some sort to add some shape to sandwiches or slices of meat or cheese, or maybe draw the eye in in the first place with a personal note. If the food looks attractive and tantalising to you, there’s a good chance it will to your child, too.

Sneak in the food groups

Creativity is a useful skill when trying to ensure your child gets all of the food groups they need in their packed lunches. There are five main food groups: fruits and vegetables, protein, grains, dairy and fats, and it can take some inspiration to get all of these into the mix.

First of all, if your child has any intolerances or allergies, it’s worth talking to a pharmacist, doctor or dietician about supplementing their nutritional intake with a multivitamin or supplement instead. However, if that’s not an issue, you can simply try sneaking in the foods or food groups that your child refuses to eat.

Smoothies being so popular, blending less popular vegetables into a predominately healthy, and tasty, fruit smoothy can be a good way to get lesser-eaten vegetables like spinach into a child’s diet. Alternatively, mashing cauliflower into mashed potatoes and similar such tricks are another good way to get your child’s less-favoured foods into their daily meals.

It may also be worth asking your child why they don’t like certain foods – if they simply don’t like the look or texture of a food, this can sometimes be put to rights with an alternative cooking technique. I love salmon, for instance, but I’m reluctant to touch it when smoked. It can be as simple a thing as changing how a food looks or feels.

Involve your children in meal prep

Children are a lot more likely to eat, or at least try, something if they were involved in its making. They, and the same is true of adults, have a sense of control over what they create, and so are more likely to try a sandwich or a stew if they had a hand in making it.

A child’s involvement can be as extensive or limited as you or your child feels, from picking a recipe, to shopping for the ingredients and cooking or preparing the meal. You could even collaboratively put together a list of meals that are tried and true from their perspective, and that you approve of, making the lunches task easier going forward.

No new foods at lunch

Introducing new foods to children is an important part of developing a healthy, balanced diet, as it can take many attempts before a new food is taken to. However, school lunches may not be the best time for it, as the food items they’re inclined to stay away from may simply end up being left in the box or bag, and through sheer habit, they’ll come to consider that food one they avoid.

The positive example of others eating the food together is important for children to see”

A much better time to introduce new foods, which can later be used in lunches, is at dinner, as the whole family sits down to a meal. The positive example of others eating the food together is important for children to see.

Lead by example

As mentioned, children are highly impressionable, and they observe your behaviour a lot more closely than we might think. If you don’t eat healthily or skip over certain foods in your meals, they’ll mirror that behaviour too.

If you eat dessert or snack before dinner, don’t be surprised if your child starts to adopt the same practice, too. Be bold in serving foods you yourself are picky about, and lead by example at the dinner table. If you serve broccoli to your child yet pick it off your own plate, don’t be surprised when your child starts doing the same.

Be as creative as possible

The days are busy enough, but if at all possible, try to be creative with your child’s lunchbox. The stereotypical contents include sandwiches and an apple – and there’s nothing wrong with this.

Expending energy on school lunches can be difficult, but they can be a valuable opportunity to pass on the gift of health to your child”

However, just as that would get boring for an adult if it was every day’s fare, so too will it get boring for a child. Soups, salads, curries and tacos all make for great alternatives, and these can be made in bulk, to get you through a few of the days of the week.

Expending energy on school lunches can be difficult, but they can be a valuable opportunity to pass on the gift of health to your child – one they’ll cherish long after you’ve stopped making their lunches (even if they don’t say it).