Back to school: how to be a lunch box hero.

The summer is coming to an end and the kids are heading back to school. If you are busy running around buying uniform items, pencil cases and notebooks, unless the school is providing lunch, do not forget to prepare for the lunchboxes and to stock your kitchen with foods that will provide vital fuel to sustain your children through their busy afternoons schedules. My daughter is starting reception this year (oh dear, where has the time gone?) and, although I will not need to pack her lunches anymore, I have done so for the past two years when she was at nursery. During this time many mums have shared with me their concerns about packing the kids lunches, their fears of not doing a good enough job, of being repetitive and also of finding this just another chore which they did not enjoy. The way I see is that packing your kids lunches gives you an amazing opportunity to feed their developing brains with the best quality, vitamin and mineral packed foods possible. Eating nutrient-dense meals while avoiding sugar loaded and processed ‘foods’ can enhance brain function, improve memory and boost brain development. Think about this for a moment, by providing the right nutrients you can influence the way your child’s brain works. Isn’t this remarkable?

So, what makes an ideal lunch box and how do you become a lunch box hero? Here are some tips and ideas.

Pack the nutrients

Aim to include one portion of each of the following.

Protein: focus on lean, unprocessed (and organic if possible) meat, fish, eggs, seeds (most schools have a ‘no nuts policy’), beans and pulses. Proteins are essential for brain and body growth, maintenance and repair as well as building muscles and immunity.

Starches (opt for complex carbohydrates): brown rice, wholemeal pasta or crackers, oats, millet, quinoa, buckwheat and sweet potatoes. Give sandwiches a new twist with different breads like rye, spelt, or millet. Try experimenting with whole grain pittas or wraps too.

Despite the recent trend to cut carbohydrates out of the diet, my view is that complex carbohydrates offer a ready available source of energy and are therefore an important part of a healthy and balanced diet for children (provided there are no serious underlying medical conditions). So, pay attention to which carbohydrates you choose and avoid all refined carbohydrates (like white bread, white pasta, cakes, and biscuits) because these are nutrients poor foods which are easily broken down and raise blood sugars very quickly. This, in the short term, leads to drops in energy levels, irritability, mood swings and loss of concentration while, in the long term, they contribute to the development of serious physical and mental health problems.

Calcium: rich sources of calcium are dairy products (milk, yogurt, cheese) but also green vegetables, seeds, dried fruits, shellfish, tinned salmon and sardines. We usually associate calcium with strong bones and teeth but this mineral is also important for muscle contraction, blood flow, and helping the body send messages throughout the brain and nervous system.

Vegetables: carrots/peppers/celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, cucumber slices, steamed broccoli/cauliflower florets, small pieces of beetroots can all be easily added to a lunch box. You can also ‘disguise’ lots of vegetables by adding them to sauces for pasta dishes, soups, savoury muffins or frittatas. Most children love vegetables kebabs (raw or cooked), as well as mini versions of vegetables like baby carrots or baby courgettes. Explain to kids that vegetables are full of goodness, vitamins, minerals and fibre which are beneficial to our health. Also variety is the key. It prevents boredom and provides a whole range of essential nutrients. So rotate the vegetables and occasionally add a new one to keep the kids interested! Try to include more than just one portion of vegetables per lunchbox.

Fruit: most kids enjoy eating fruit, so adding a whole fruit, a small pot of berries or a small fruit salad should be easy. Just remember that what looks good at 7.30 in the morning might look less appealing at lunchtime after being thrown around in the playground. You can toss chopped fruit like apples in some lemon juice to stop them browning, for instance. Alternatively you can prepare some homemade fruit bars or flapjacks but go easy on the dried fruit as the sugar is concentrated.

Drinks: water is the perfect drink for a lunchbox. Cold herbal teas, diluted fresh juice or a homemade smoothie are also good choices but please stay away from shop bought juices as they can contain very little fruit and lots of sugar. Remember that drinking enough water is essential for all brain and body functions.

Make it practical

Choose practical, BPA-free containers like Bento-style boxes (check out Yumbox UK) and label them clearly as things go missing during busy times at schools. To keep food safe make sure you include reusable ice packs to keep food cold or use thermos to keep it hot.
Be prepared and plan in advance. Remember you can freeze most foods including sandwiches (although it doesn’t work with added vegetables!) and even homemade savoury muffins, just take one out in the morning and by lunchtime it will be defrosted!

Involve the kids

When you take your child shopping, explain that you will be buying some foods to include in their lunch boxes and also let them know why some foods and drinks are not going to be on the menu. You can tell them how sugar can damage their teeth and make them feel bad, how some foods contain harmful substances that can damage their health and encourage them to help you find suitable alternatives. It can be helpful to write shopping lists together and invite them to prepare meals and snack with you too.

Try to get the kids onboard as much as possible but avoid open questions like ‘what vegetables would you like to have today?’ because you are not going to accept ‘none’ as an answer! So use the ‘two-options-only’ technique: ‘Do you prefer cucumber or cherry tomatoes? Banana or apple? Broccoli or cauliflower?’ This is simple yet effective.

Now let me give you some examples:

    •Hummus on a whole grain wrap. Top with turkey, thin slices of cucumber and grated cheese. Cherries tomatoes and a small fruit salad.
    • Wholemeal pasta salad with mixed vegetables and tuna. Crunchy carrots sticks and a plain yogurt with some blueberries on top.
    • Chicken (leftovers from the previous dinner will work well) with 2 or 3 oatcakes. Cherry tomatoes and mozzarella pieces on a skewer and one whole fruit.
    • Mixed vegetables frittata (peppers, spinach, and mushrooms work well) with salmon and ricotta. Homemade fruit flapjack.
    • 2 hard boiled eggs, quinoa with roasted vegetables, celery sticks and a few grapes.
    • Slice of homemade quiche with mixed vegetables and salmon. A piece of fruit and chia seeds pudding (many combinations are possible, I like to soak 2 tablespoons of chia seeds in some coconut milk, overnight, add a small amount of mashed banana and sprinkle with desiccated coconut)
    • Spinach and ricotta muffin, cucumber batons, yogurt with pineapple pieces.

You might not be ready to say goodbye to the summer yet, but at least you will be ready to say hello to your new, exciting, delicious lunchboxes.

Eggs the healthy breakfast

5 healthy breakfast options

What are you having for breakfast? Do you skip breakfast in an attempt to lose weight or do you eat a bowl of cereal thinking this is a better option than a bacon sandwich? Although I do not believe that everybody needs to eat breakfast, it is not a good idea to skip it and end up bingeing on sugar loaded foods later on in the day. So, if you are going to have breakfast, make it a nutritious one. Here you are 5 quick options which will help you rethink your morning meal altogether.

Eggs: the protein start.

Starting the day with a healthy portion of protein is a great way to maintain balanced blood sugar levels and avoid the mid-morning munchies. Studies have shown that a high protein breakfast helps to reduce the levels of ghrelin which is a ‘hunger hormone’ that increases appetite. So a protein-packed breakfast is ideal if you are trying to lose weight as it can satisfy your appetite, keep you full for longer so you end up eating less during the rest of the day.
Eggs have had a bit of a bad press in the past but they’re full of nutrients and, in my opinion, a real super-food, so unless you are allergic to them, add them to your meals and enjoy them! A couple of scrambled or poached eggs make a great breakfast choice. An even quicker option is to hard boil the eggs the night before, store them in the fridge so they are ready for you in the morning. Alternatively if you have a little more time, you can whip up an omelette and stuff it with your favourite vegetables like spinach, mushrooms, peepers or courgettes.

Pancakes: a healthy version of a children’s favourite.

This is a very quick and easy no-flour pancake option which is also gluten and dairy free. For one generous sized pancake all you need is half a small banana (mashed), one egg and one tablespoon of ground flaxseeds. Mix everything in a bowl and then pour it on a warm pancake pan. I usually melt one teaspoon of coconut oil in the pan before adding the mixture so it doesn’t stick to it. Cook the pancake one minute on each side and you are done. You can serve it with a few blueberries, and /or a tablespoon of Greek yogurt on top. This is a great hit with the kids and adults alike and provides a good balance of proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats.

Smoothies: liquid goodness.

Having a smoothie for breakfast is a great ways to pack as many nutrients as possible in one go. Fibre intake is also maximised with smoothies as the whole fruit and vegetable is blended. This is important as fibre keeps our bowl movements regular and it helps in keeping us full for longer. Start with one piece of fruit (berries always work well), then add a couple of green vegetables (spinach, or kale for example) and then some milk (coconut or almond are good choices) to make it creamy. If you prefer, you can add just water and some ice. Other great additions include ‘super foods’ like spirulina, maca , baobab powder, raw cacao, protein powder, lucuma and coconut oil. The choices are endless; it all depends on your taste as well as your nutritional needs. Experiment to find what flavours work best for you and you will not be disappointed. The rewards include lots of energy and glowing skin, so go on give smoothies a go!

Leftovers from last night dinner: why not?

Who said that breakfast has to be prepared from scratch? And what if you are in a rush? Well, if your leftovers are a good balance of proteins, complex carbohydrates and good fats than go ahead. Tuck in into the turkey breast with sautés vegetables or the salmon fillet with spinach from last night’s dinner. These options obviously work well if you prefer something savoury in the morning. So remember next time you are cooking your dinner to be generous with the ingredients because it could work as a breakfast too!

Cereals: why ‘make your own’ is your best option.

I added cereals because I get asked this question often: are cereals a good option for breakfast? Well, let me ask you: do you know how much sugar is in your favourite cereal? If you read the ingredient list on the label you will find one or more of the following: sugar, fructose, glucose, barley malt, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, raw cane sugar, honey, molasses, dextrose and so on. Loading up on sugar first thing in the morning, or at any other time of the day, is not a good idea! Also, if you have children I beg you not to buy the cereals aimed specifically at kids because most of them can have as much as 3 or 4 teaspoons of sugar per 30g serving. However, if you like to start your day with a bowl of cereals because it is easy and convenient, your best bet is to buy the main ingredients separately and combine them together to make your own mix. It is really easier and cheaper than you think. You will need to buy some grains: good choices are gluten free oats, quinoa, buckwheat and millet flakes. Then some nuts like chopped hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, flaked almonds, and some seeds like sunflower, pumpkin, chia, and linseeds. Coconut flakes give a nice taste too. To add sweetness you might like some dried fruit like raisins, chopped dates, cranberries, apricots, and pineapple. Choose whatever you like the most! You can pick just one or two options from each food group depending on your taste, but go easy on the dried fruit as it is a very concentrate source of fructose which is still a sugar! Mix all your preferred ingredients in a jar and store it in the fridge. Voila’, you have homemade delicious muesli. In the evenings, you can put a serving in a bowl with some coconut or almond milk and let it soak overnight so it is nice and soft in the morning. Before serving you can add some ground flaxseeds which provide extra protein, fibre and omega 3s and you are ready to face the day!
If you run out of your own special muesli and you are stuck with having to buy a supermarket version, the only fairly decent option I came across is ‘Lizi’s Low Sugar Granola’ which is also made from oats, nuts and seeds. A serving of 50g (the usual 30g recommended on most boxes is not very generous at all!) will give you 22.6 g of carbohydrates and 1.9g of sugar. This is much better than all the Special K, Weetabix, Fruit and Fibre, Coco pops, Crunchy nuts, Frosties and Dorset cereals brigade.
Whatever you choose as your first meal of the day, please remember to always have some protein and to stay away from refined carbohydrates (muffins, white toast, croissants, and sugar filled cereals). This will help to reduce mid-morning energy dips and sugar cravings.