What do nutritionists pack in their kids’ lunch box?

Dr Megan Hammersley, PhD, Accredited Practising Dietician from UOW’s Early Start gives us an insight into her daughter’s lunch box, and the three things she always includes and what we should leave out.

Top 3 things to include every day

  1. Water
    “It’s essential for bodily functions and very important for children to stay hydrated during the day,” Megan says. “Pack at least one bottle of water each day, two may be needed on sports days or when it is hot.”
  2. Vegetables
    “While many children have ample fruit each day, 95 per cent don’t eat enough vegetables and miss out on beneficial vitamins, minerals and fibre,” she says. Some great options Megan includes regularly in her daughter Michaela’s lunch box include veggie sticks and hummus dip, adding a salad on a sandwich, zucchini slice or vegetable frittata, sushi, rice paper rolls (with carrot, capsicum and cucumber) or leftovers, such as stir fry.
  3. Grain or cereal food
    “These foods are the main source of energy for the body, which is important when children are spending their day learning and playing,” she says. She also suggests we stick to mostly wholegrains (wholegrain or wholemeal bread, wholegrain crispbread etc.).

Dr Megan Hammersley with her daughter

3 things we should avoid

  1. Sweet and savoury snacks
    “Things such as fruit straps, lollies, chocolates, potato chips are generally too high in energy, sugar and/or salt and are best left out of the lunch box” she says.
  2. Sugar-sweetened drinks
    “These are high in sugar, can lead to excess weight gain and also be very damaging to teeth” Megan adds. Best to avoid these and stick to water.
  3. Muesli bars and other snack bars
    “These products can be quite deceptive,” Megan says. She recommends watching out for their claims of ‘natural’ and ‘wholegrain’.  “It is easy to think that these would be healthy lunchbox options. However, lots of ingredients are natural (think butter, sugar) and are not good for us in excess,” Megan adds.

A typical lunch box packed by Megan

This all good in theory, right? But how does Megan handle these five curly questions from everyday mums?

How do I add some variety?

Megan suggests getting your child involved by asking them to write a list of their favourite fruits, vegetables and sandwich fillings.

“This give you some options to rotate between” she says. To keep things interesting she says to try out some healthy recipes for frittatas, savoury muffins or a healthy muesli slice.

“There are some great ideas on at Cancer Council’s Healthy Lunchbox. Ask your child to take a look with you and they can choose something that they would like to help you make,” she says.

What about fussy eaters?

“If your child is a fussy eater, give them a choice of what to pack in their lunchbox from a few healthy options,” Megan says. “Children are more likely to eat something that they have chosen themselves.”

She also suggests encouraging children to try new foods, even if it’s just a small slice of fruit or vegetable once or twice a week.

Another great suggestion is to ask about what healthy foods your child’s friends like to eat.

“They could end up trying something they refused at home if they see some friends eating it at school,” she says. “Try to make foods as attractive as you can, without spending all day in the kitchen!”

What if it comes back full?

“Ask your child why they didn’t eat it as it could be one of many reasons,” she says.

“Are they tired of having the same thing? Did they not get enough time to eat? Were they busy or distracted with something else? Did the food go soggy or mushy? Once you know the reason why you can make changes.”

Megan says to encourage your child to eat their food at the allocated time, but then offer any uneaten food as afternoon tea (as long as it’s not perishable and been kept cold).

“Another great use is using leftover fruit in a fruit smoothie or veggie sticks in a stir-fry or a mince dish,” she adds.

Should I include any treats at all?

“It is OK to include treats occasionally, but remember that they will get treats at school as well,” she says. “All those class birthday cakes add up!”

Megan suggests that dried fruit, popcorn, healthy homemade muffins, banana or pikelets are better options to consider for treats than pre-packaged foods, which are usually high in energy, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt

But I have no time!

Planning and preparation are the key. Megan suggests using some time on the weekend to get organised.

“If you have time on the weekend you could make a week’s worth of sandwiches and freeze them,” she says. “Other items that freeze well are frittatas, zucchini slice and savoury muffins. Depending on your child’s age, they may be able to pack the lunchbox themselves, saving you a lot of time.”

Importantly, Megan reminds us that as parents we shouldn’t feel guilty about not creating amazing, Instagram-worthy bento-style lunches every day (or at all).

“What I pack varies, sometimes it is just a simple sandwich or wrap or it could be or last night’s leftover dinner,” she says. “Keep it simple, cook in advance and get the kids involved where you can and remember lunches don’t need to be fancy to be healthy. Good luck!”

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