With a return to physical classrooms now in full swing in the UK, it’s become even more essential for parents to think about how they can make their kids' lunches healthier. After an absence from making school lunches due to at-home learning, many parents may be out of practice.
Our team of experts has put together a list of helpful tips that can help parents get back into the habit of preparing healthier lunch and snack options for their school-going children. We believe that packing your children healthy lunches and snacks is important, especially when they are active. Doing so will provide them with the nutrients they need to concentrate on their learning and fill up their energy levels so they can keep up with their peers.
Here is what you need to know and be mindful of:
Get them lunchbox containers they actually like
Not all kids are the same - if you know that your kids are easily bored and therefore will be more likely to eat if their food is packaged more creatively, then make sure you alternate the lunchboxes every few days. Get them a few colourful lunch containers with their favourite cartoons or animations so you can switch them up.
Also keep in mind that kids are easily influenced by their friends, so they might not be eating because they find their container embarrassing compared to what their friends have. So maybe talk to them to get a better understanding of why they are not eating. The ‘right’ container could be the difference between them returning home with their lunch eaten or otherwise.
2. A little planning ahead goes a long way
Meal preparations are essential across the board because eating healthy can be such a chore for many of us, leaving us often opting for unhealthy and convenient options when we don’t plan our meals ahead of time. This also means you can add more variety so you’re not giving your kids the same thing twice in a row, and you can include more balanced food options because you’re not doing them in a rush (1. 2). Preparing the lunchbox the day before can also help reduce the stress that usually comes with morning school runs; most parents already feel rushed in the morning, especially working parents. If lunch is already prepared, that’s one less thing to worry about.
You should also make meals that are easy to prepare and have an extended life span so that they can be stored in the fridge for a day or two.
3. Make sure there is a variety
We’ve all been told growing up that “variety is the spice of life”, this is no exception when it comes to our diet. Even as adults, it becomes harder to maintain a healthy diet when we eat the same thing often, this is no exception for children who already have a tendency to get bored and change their minds often.
Their favourite foods change frequently as well. So it’s necessary to mix things up and get more creative when it comes to what goes in their lunchbox to get them to eat. Offering variety also expands their taste experience so they are exposed to more flavours by the time they become adults (1). Some studies have also concluded that offering your kids a variety of healthy food options over time can increase their acceptance of variety. You can encourage this behaviour by setting an example and also eating a variety of food as the parent (1).
For younger children, cut the sandwiches into different shapes to add interest: for example triangles or squares, or use cookie cutters for fancier shapes. You could even use one slice of white and one slice of brown to make a ‘zebra’ sandwich or switch between bread, bagels, rolls or wraps for variety. Make it fun for them to eat.
4. Prioritise plenty of unsweetened fluids
According to some studies, there is a clear correlation between sweetened beverages and children's weight problems. Even one or two sweet drinks a day can cause a problem. This is very alarming because the UK has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world. This is due to the fact that sweet drinks have been found to contain a lot of calories without the benefits of making kids full after they consume them. This means they’d still need to consume more food and snacks to get the feeling of fullness on top of drinking sweet drinks.
So it’s important to prioritise the consumption of water, milk and of other sugar-free drinks for children. Fruit juice and smoothies also count towards your fluid consumption, but they contain a higher concentration of fruit sugars that can damage teeth, so limit these drinks to a combined total of 150ml a day.
A recent Harvard study also found that children who drank fewer sugary drinks in the home for a period of one year gained less weight compared to those who did not change their sugary-drink intake. So encourage your children to drink more water by packing water bottles in their lunch bags daily, this can also get them into a great and healthy habit of drinking water regularly.
5. Swap out sweet treats like chocolate bars with fruits
Kids don’t always like healthier options, so add either fresh or dried fruit options to replace their processed sweet treats. Kids can have sweets but cut it down to a minimum, as a treat every now and again instead of part of their daily diet. Remember, it’s all about building healthy lifelong habits.
6. Cut back on fatty foods for greener and fresher options
Adding some of their favourite veggies like carrot sticks, cucumber, and peppers all count towards their 5 A Day, and also include dip options like hummus. It would be easier to add the veggies inside sandwiches along with reduced-fat spread options and lean protein like chicken or turkey. Make sure to avoid any heavily processed food options.
7. Cut down on unhealthy snacks
Most parents often include a side snack in their kid’s backpacks, and that’s fine. Snacking is not a bad word, some studies show that snacking during the school day improves both mood and motivation, and may impact concentration. Snacks may help children maintain performance during times of high mental demand, like when taking an exam or making a class presentation (1). But it’s pivotal to keep an eye out for when, how much and what they are snacking on instead.
Try to substitute things like crisps with healthier alternatives. Crisps are not meant to be harmful in moderation, but try to reduce the number of times you include them in their lunchbox and swap for snacks like homemade plain popcorn, nuts, berries, unsweetened yoghurt, or homemade baked treats that are made with less sugar instead. Remember that even though kids may have a preference for unhealthier snacks, they are also easily impressionable. If you get them into the habit of eating healthier, they are more likely to get used to and choose those options over time. Crips can be given to them as a treat every now and again or on special occasions.
It’s also important to make sure that kids are not snacking too close to main meal times like lunch and dinner since they might get full from their snacks, or before bedtime because that can interrupt their sleeping pattern.
But more than anything, make eating healthy a fun and collaborative activity for the whole family, get your kids involved in shopping for and preparing their lunch boxes. It’s also vital to understand that kids do by watching what’s being demonstrated in the home, thus parents need to lead by example. If you want them to take on healthy eating habits, you should also model that behaviour by eating a healthy diet. This will make acceptance of healthier options easier.
We hope this list helps eliminate some of the stress that comes with having kids return to physical classrooms.Here are lunch meal options you can make for your kids, we hope they enjoy them.
Crunchy Veggie Wraps:
This recipe is a colourful and crunchy way to get your kids eating more veggies throughout the day.
1 wholewheat wrap
2 Tbsp hummus
1 shredded cabbage leaf
¼ carrot, shredded or grated
4 cucumber sticks
2 avocado slices
1 Tbsp fresh tomato salsa
1 Tbsp grated cheddar
- Lay the wrap out flat on a board, spread the hummus on the bottom third and put the cabbage on top. Arrange the carrot, cucumber and avocado on top of the cabbage and spoon the salsa on top. Sprinkle on the cheese.
- Fold the bottom of the wrap up just over the filling, fold the sides in and then roll the wrap the rest of the way up. Cut in half or into smaller pieces if desired. Either put straight into a lunchbox or if halved, wrap in wax paper first.
Pasta Protein Salad:
This recipe is great to make the night before (to save you time in the morning) and it can be adjusted to suit your own choice of protein.
4-5 Tbsp fresh pesto
1 Tbsp mayonnaise
2 Tbsp Greek yoghurt
½ lemon, juiced
200g mixed cooked veg such as peas, green beans, carrots (chop the bigger veg into smaller pieces)
100g cherry tomatoes, halved
200g cooked chicken, ham, prawns, hard-boiled egg or cheese
- Cook the pasta in boiling water until it is al dente, roughly around 10 mins. Drain and tip into a bowl. Stir in the pesto and leave to cool.
- When the pasta is cool, stir through the mayo, yoghurt, lemon juice, veg and meat/protein of your choice. Spoon into lunchboxes and keep in the refrigerator until taken for lunch (the next day).