By Guest Dietitian, Dr Joanna McMillan

If you are a parent like me the return to school for the kids also means the daily lunchbox dilemma is upon us again. What can we put in their lunchboxes that will keep them happy while also ticking the nutrition boxes to support their growth and development?

To help you here is my quick 5-point guide. Basically I use my kids’ version of the Dr Joanna Plate:

1.    Plant food

Salad vegetables in a sandwich or wrap are the obvious way, but not all kids like them.  Think outside the square.  If your kids won’t eat leafy greens, don’t get too worried about that.  Remember the most important thing is that your child eats mostly minimally processed, wholesome, natural foods.  Encourage them to consume more vegies, but keep your eye on the big picture:

•    In a sandwich or wrap:  Lettuce, tomato (seeds removed so the wrap won’t go soggy), cucumber, grated carrot, sliced or grated beetroot, roast capsicum. But if your child won’t eat salad in their sandwich (mine won’t bar more than a token few greens to keep me happy!), try putting them separately.
•    In a smoothie – blend a few fresh vegies with a little fresh fruit and pour into a flask that will keep it cool until lunchtime. Or you can whip up a protein-rich smoothie with milk, yoghurt and berries.
•    Raw vegies with a dip, e.g. carrot, celery & cucumber sticks with hummus.
•    Fruit – either whole, or I find my kids almost always eat it if I chop into bite sized pieces & pop into a ziploc bag or container.
•    Carton of fruit in fruit juice (not syrup).


2.    Protein 

Kids need protein at every meal to help regulate their appetite, provide amino acids for growth and development, and to provide the micronutrients that accompany protein-rich foods.  Here are some great tips:
•    Cook extra meat at dinner, slice and have ready in the fridge for sandwiches/wraps & salads.
•    Poach a couple of chicken breasts on Sunday, slice and keep in the fridge.
•    Ham is popular with kids but it is high in salt as well as preservatives. Try to limit ham to no more than 2 times a week and buy ham sliced off the bone where possible rather than the highly processed ham (just think how they got the perfect circle!).
•    Cheese provides high quality protein and is an excellent source of calcium. Add to sandwiches/wraps or give as a stick to have with sliced apple or pear, or with a couple of grainy crackers or oatcakes.
•    Canned tuna or salmon – dress with a little extra virgin olive oil and lemon, or ‘proper’ mayonnaise made with extra virgin olive oil.
•    Smoked salmon or trout – is high in salt but a terrific source of protein and an excellent source of long chain omega-3 fats essential for brain development (canned salmon will also provide these). Provided there aren’t too many other high salt foods, these are often popular with kids.
•    Eggs – hard-boiled and added to sandwiches/wraps or salads. Or simply wrap in cling film as a snack.
•    Yoghurt – many parents are concerned about the amount of sugar in fruit yoghurts, however bear in mind that the grams on the side of the pack include the sugar in the milk, the fruit and the added sugar.  The best option is to mix fresh (or frozen) fruit with natural yoghurt, but for convenience nothing is wrong with giving a commercial fruit type – provided they are part of an overall healthy diet. They are low GI, rich in calcium and high quality protein.
•    Milk is an excellent protein and calcium rich drink.  Transporting it in the lunchbox is the tricky bit, especially with very active kids!  You can freeze a carton of milk and it will have defrosted and still be cold by lunchtime. If you can find suitable refillable containers, that is likely to be your best bet.  If your child won’t drink plain milk, try making homemade flavoured milks (where you can control how it is sweetened) or smoothies with milk, yoghurt and fruit.
•    For dairy-free diets you can substitute oat, soy or almond milks.
•    Tofu – marinated it makes an excellent sandwich/wrap filling or tossed in a salad.


2.    Smart Carbs

Kids need more carbs than most adults, in part because they tend to be more active but also to fuel their growing brains. It’s no secret that human breast milk is far higher in carbohydrate than any other mammal and is testament to the fact that young humans needs their carbs. The trick is to get the right ones – those that will deliver sustained energy, plus loads of fibre and nutrients they need. Here are a few ideas:

•    Wholegrain, low-GI breads & wraps.
•    Beans, chickpeas & lentils – these can be added to soups or salads, however I also add beans to tuna mayonnaise sandwich fillings.
•    Sweet corn – great in sandwiches, soups & salads.
•    Pasta (wholegrain best but regular pasta is still low GI), brown rice, freekeh or quinoa can all be used in soups or whipped up into a salad.
•    Wholegrain, air-popped corn.
•    Wholegrain muesli or cereal bar. I’m pretty careful about the packaged foods I buy but I do want the convenience of having something nutritious in the pantry that I can quickly grab when filling their lunchboxes in the morning rush. Check out the full range of bars from Freedom Foods (add link) they are all nut free and with such as wide selection you’re bound to find one or more that your kids love.
•    Homemade muffins using wholegrain flours are terrific – you can make savoury ones with vegies, or sweet ones with fruit. You can simply use wholegrain wheat flour, or experiment with the new kids on the block such as lupin, teff or green banana flour. These all have nutritional benefits and will lower the GI of the muffins.


3.    Good Fat

Low fat diets are not suitable for kids. They need fat for brain development (especially the omega-3 fats found in fish) but also to deliver a while wealth of nutrients. Plus fat helps to slow down the absorption of the carbs in the meal, so lunch will keep them fuller for longer rather than have them fading by 2pm. Here are a few ideas as to how to get good fats into the lunchbox:

•    Extra virgin olive oil – to dress a pasta, rice or quinoa salad for adventurous kids or to make a homemade super healthy mayo.
•    Hummus, mashed avocado, pesto, and tahini are terrific in sandwiches/wraps.
•    Remember that kids will also get some fat from meats, cheese and other full fat dairy foods, and oily fish such as salmon or trout.
•    While we can’t give nuts at school, do remember to give them to kids at home – allergies excepted of course.


4.    Water

•    Add a refillable, stainless steel bottle of water that your kids can drink from throughout the day. Be sure to empty this at the end of the day, wash and refill fresh each day. I never give them plastic bottles for school as the water is sitting in the bottle all day, and there is a risk of chemical leeching.

Finally kids don’t need endless variety. Have a few options of what to give them and rotate the ideas. Avoid giving them too much or you’ll just be constantly frustrated at the waste. Think about how much they eat when they’re at home for the day and remember they have only two eating opportunities at school – morning recess and lunch. Pack foods accordingly and if the lunchbox does come home with uneaten food, there’s afternoon tea sorted!