We’re constantly being told to cut down on sugar and salt. And with recent Heart Foundation figures showing that school lunch staples like the ham and cheese sandwich deliver a hefty dose of salt, lunchboxes seem like a great place to start.
Our food choices have been “educating only two taste buds – sweet and salt”, Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman Kate Di Prima says.
But it’s never too late to make changes – and you don’t need to spend hours comparing food labels or preparing home-cooked delights to do so. Try these easy lunchbox swaps to help cut down on sugar and salt.
The protein- and iron-rich part of lunch is often a sandwich, roll, wrap or leftovers.
“Ham, baloney or processed meats are going to have a lot more salt in them,” Ms Di Prima says. “I say to parents use those sparingly, maybe once a week.”
Heart Foundation dietitians say a ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with butter can contain three grams of salt – 91 per cent of the recommended daily allowance for a four-to-eight-year-old. In contrast, roasted chicken and avocado on multigrain contains less than a gram of salt.
Ms Di Prima, an accredited practising dietitian, recommends switching to fillings such as shredded chicken, leftover lamb roast, beef patties, or fish.
“You can put those in a wrap or a roll and you’ve controlled the amount of salt that goes on them,” she says.
Reduce sugar by avoiding spreads such as honey, jam and Nutella.
Ms Di Prima recommends sticking with whole fruit, which has natural sugar.
“Fruit is [naturally] packaged with a lot of water and fibre. You’re only getting somewhere between 5 and 9 grams [of sugar] per apple or orange,” she says.
By comparison, a 28-gram fruit strap contains about 16 grams of sugar. Fruit juice can hide as much sugar as soft drink.
A calcium-rich protein
This could be milk, yoghurt, custard or a smoothie. Look for plain varieties or those made with real fruit without added sugar.
A 200-millilitre tub of plain yoghurt contains about 14 grams of sugar, while flavoured yoghurts can have more than 30 grams. You can always add real fruit and a small amount of sweetener.
Or try making your own, Ms Di Prima says, so you control how much sugar goes in.
Packet biscuits and noodles are high in salt, because it’s used as a flavouring and a preservative, Ms Di Prima says.
A 20-gram serve of rice crackers can have more than 100 milligrams of sodium. Replace high-salt snacks with crunchy sticks of carrot, celery or snow peas, which can be eaten with a dip of mashed avocado, cream cheese or hummus.
Tips for fussy eaters
Ms Di Prima, a parent of two teenagers, acknowledges that it can be difficult to change fussy eating habits.
However, part of parenting is helping our kids make good choices. While kids can be stubborn, “parents just need to dig their heels in stronger than their children”, she says.
She suggests engaging your child in selecting and packing foods.
“You’ve negotiated things, they’ve agreed to it. They’re not going to be shocked when they get [to school],” she says.
On the weekends, try different foods, and add favourites to the lunchbox repertoire.
Some children have issues that contribute to fussy eating, such as excessive fear of new foods, or problems with sensory processing, chewing or swallowing. Consult a professional for advice if this is the case.
For the big kids
Lunchbox rules also apply to the work lunch. “Last night’s dinner is today’s lunch is a great one for adults,” Ms Di Prima says. “Lead by example, because kids are going to look at what goes into your lunchbox.”
Go for fresh fruit, a salad, a good-quality protein and perhaps some healthy home-bake.