One British parent recently sent their child to school with a “cold McDonald’s Happy Meal” for lunch.
It’s a situation that would naturally horrify many parents, including Australia’s leading child and adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg.
“The sole source of energy for a child’s brain is glucose and children who don’t get enough good food to eat not only can’t learn but also are at risk for common mental health problems such as anxiety and depression,” he says.
Naturopath, mum and author Georgia Harding from Well Nourished, who created an eBook of inspiring lunch box ideas to help parents create a variety of delicious and nutritious lunch boxes, says that because children grow and develop at such a rapid rate, proper nourishment at every meal is critical.
“Every mouthful needs to count nutritionally, especially at lunchtime.”
According to Ms Harding a child consumes over 3000 school lunches.
“The perfect lunch box should include protein (unprocessed meat, seeds, legumes), good fats (avocado, fish, olives) and complex carbohydrate (fruit, vegetables and whole grains) to provide a nutritional balanced, sustained source of energy,” Ms Harding says.
But what’s not in a lunch box is equally important.
“A pick-a-packet style school lunch does not support learning or the long-term health of your kids,” she says.
So what are the obstacles to creating the perfect lunch box?
For Ms Harding and former Neighbours star Madeleine West, the No.1 reason is ‘time’.
“As a society we are more time-poor than ever, and which parent hasn’t found themselves tearing pantry and fridge to shreds, desperate to find something to stuff their progenies various Dora/Shopkins/Batman-themed lunchtime Tupperware?” says Ms West, who has six children with Vue de monde chef Shannon Bennett.
“When the clock is ticking, sometimes you will use anything! Even if it tastes faintly of cardboard with the mouth feel of shoe leather.”
She adds that “organisation is king and practicality is queen” to getting that lunch wrapped and packed (and out the front door!) but “that means nothing if kids won’t eat it”.
Here are some tips from Ms West, who has been in the lunch box trenches for seven years, and will be for another 15.
- Sunday is my ‘bake day’ when muffins, cupcakes and slices are made then chilled or frozen, ready to be popped into lunch boxes throughout the week.
- Make lunch boxes a day ahead and refrigerate.
- Stick to sandwich basics like cheese, ham or chicken. Include a small tub with extras like grated carrot, sliced tomato, lettuce, mayonnaise, corn kernels, even mashed egg, which, if included in the sandwich beforehand, would inevitably sog the bread.
- Pack something a little unusual and kids will munch through it for the novelty alone! Try purple or white carrots.
- Whole fruit is a lunch box default.
- Lunch boxes love leftovers and most evening meals can be reimagined as tomorrow’s lunch – cold quiche, a tub of pasta, last night’s rice dressed with vinaigrette, soup in a thermos, or stuff a buttered roll with leftover chopped roast and veg for a bubble ‘n squeak bun.
- Keep lunch boxes cool with a frozen yoghurt or segmented frozen orange.
- Purchase a batch of small ‘treat’ containers. My kids know that any lunch box treat must be small enough to fit in that container.
- Write a little note or cartoon on kitchen paper, wishing them a good day and telling them you love them. Wrap it around a cookie or slice like a tiny gift.
- Always ensure treats are packed on the bottom with fruit, vegies and nutrient-dense foods on top.
Ms Harding adds: “I don’t believe that fresh produce is more expensive than processed, packaged foods because you just can’t put a price on health.”