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.