For most families, it’s a daily challenge trying to pack a lunch box with a variety of healthy foods that kids will actually eat and enjoy. Unfortunately, most “healthy” supermarket foods are anything but that, despite what the packaging may claim.
Given how busy the average family is during the working week, it’s understandably easy for lunch boxes to become repetitive (especially with fussy eaters, families resort to “what works”) and often involving processed and packaged convenience foods to help make the morning rush easier – especially when there are multiple lunch boxes involved.
Unfortunately, these processed foods often contain high levels of sugar, salt, preservatives, artificial colourings and flavourings, MSG and a long list of hidden nasties, even those products marketed as “healthy” and “nutritious”.
Some kids’ lunch boxes can contain up to 40 teaspoons of sugar in the form of “healthy” foods, such as organic apple and blackcurrant juice, sesame snaps, fruit bars, organic sultanas, a muffin bar, fruity bites, a fruit jelly pack and a jam sandwich. This is often confronting for parents to hear, given that they consider these to be “healthy” lunch box additions.
Learning to decipher and understand ingredient labels is incredibly important, as it empowers us as parents to make healthier, more nutritious choices for our family. I go into detail around how to read labels in my book.
In my previous article on reducing processed sugars, I talk about how and why it’s important to reduce the processed sugars that our children consume – and why it’s crucial to limit consumption, rather than ban completely or vilify. It’s important for our children to understand the facts behind sugar, how it fits into the family snack structure (I encourage processed sugar-filled snacks to be regarded as a “sometimes” food outside the home) and to learn that seeing healthy, whole and nutritious unprocessed foods in the lunchbox is the expected norm.
There’s no need to plunge in at the deep end and stop all the old favourites at once. With kids it’s best to start out slowly, and together learn what they like, what they’re not so keen on, and what they’d like to help you create for their lunch boxes.
Here are 10 simple and easy lunchbox swaps that will go a long way towards helping to reduce your child’s sugar and salt intake, as well as their exposure to any hidden nasties commonly found in packaged items.
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The benefits of these simple swaps are huge and as a result your child will have better concentration at school, more stable moods (less whining, tantrums and tears!) and feel more satiated through the day.
1. Swap sultanas for grapes.
A small pack of typical store bought sultanas contains five teaspoons of sugar. Five to six grapes (cut in half) contain only 1 teaspoon by comparison.
2. Swap sweet popcorn for lightly salted popcorn.
Tasty and with far less processed sugar!
3. Swap “squeezy” yoghurt sachets for reusable pouches.
Fill with natural yoghurt sweetened with a teaspoon of maple syrup or raw honey. Most squeezy yoghurts contain around three- five teaspoons of sugar. Yoghurt made from coconut milk is an excellent choice for children with dairy allergies or intolerances. Many of the quality brands at health food stores come with a hefty price tag, so here’s a great DIY coconut yoghurt recipe for anyone wanting to make their own.
4. Chocolate milk.
Dilute this down to half chocolate milk, half plain milk.
5. Fruit juice.
Dilute this down to one quarter fruit juice and three quarters water.
6. Sports drinks.
Use flavoured coconut water instead. Some sports drinks can contain up to nine teaspoons of sugar while coconut water contains just 1-2 teaspoons, along with a host of other nutritional benefits (but ideally it’s preferable for your child to drink water, instead of milk, fruit juice or sports drinks).
7. Jam or honey sandwich.
Use raw honey mixed with school friendly sunflower butter or tahini, which has a higher protein content than most nut butters.
8. Swap supermarket bars.
Store-bought snack bars, granola bars and muesli bars all contain sugar – get used to reading the labels of these products so you can make the healthiest choice. I feature a range of lunch box friendly simple muesli bar recipes in my book on page 193.
9. Swap white bread, refined crackers or white pasta for a whole grain alternative.
The whole grain component brings with it an increase in fibre, which helps little bellies stay fuller for longer. Bread often forms a staple for the average lunchbox, making the quality an important factor. I go into detail around how to buy supermarket bread and read food and nutritional labels in detail in my book.
As a rule, the whole grain ingredient should be the first ingredient on the ingredients list, it should offer at least 2g of dietary fibre per serving, and you should avoid bread with added gluten, vegetable oil, sugar and high levels of sodium (anything above 400mg per 100g). If the ingredient panel contains more than 4-6 ingredients, it’s better left on the shelf and always look for breads that are ideally preservative-free.
10. Swap store-bought crumpets.
Instead opt for home-made pancakes or pikelets. These are simple and quick and can be made in advance and kept in the freezer.
With children, change is slow and persistence is key. Through implementing simple and nutritional swaps to your child’s daily lunchbox, you’ll be having a huge impact on their overall health and wellbeing, helping to reduce their exposure to high levels of sugar, salt and hidden nasties, and helping to shape a healthier lifelong relationship with food.
Mandy Sacher is a paediatric nutritionist, mum and author of theWholesome Child Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook. You can learn more about Mandy's Group Workshops or connect with her on Instagram and Facebook.
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