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What should a 'healthy' lunch box look like? A paediatric nutritionist has the answer.

As busy families are aware – putting together the daily school lunch box is an ongoing challenge. Not only in terms of trying to make it as healthy, varied and interesting as possible – but also keeping it tasty enough that it comes home empty.

Given the specific daily nutritional requirements of school aged children, it’s really important that the content of their lunch boxes meets their daily needs and provides them with the necessary energy to sustain them throughout the day.

This means that the school lunch box should be looked at as more than something to simply fill little tummies – rather it’s an opportunity to support their healthy growth and development, improve their ability to concentrate and boost energy levels for physical activities.

Ideally, our kids’ daily lunch box should contain a serve of quality protein, one to two serves of a slow-release carbohydrate, two to three vegetables, a single serve of a healthy fat and a calcium-rich food. Aim for variety and colour, include your kids in menu planning and involve them in the shopping and preparation – these are great ways to encourage and create enthusiasm. I generally recommend that fruit also be included as a morning or afternoon snack, to keep blood sugar levels in check.

Using a well-designed lunch box that’s easy to open and contains a variety of compartments is very helpful. I’m a big fan of bento style lunch boxes, as they promote variety, and children love choosing what they’d like to eat first. A smaller range of different options is less intimidating for kids, and enables parents to offer new foods along with firm favourites – a strategy I recommend for fussy eaters.

In the summer months a well-insulated lunchbox is vital – anything from an ice brick to a frozen, reusable yoghurt pouch can work well in keeping the contents cool. In the winter months it’s worthwhile investing in a good thermos style container for warm meals.

To begin, follow these basics:

LISTEN: Andrew Daddo still makes his teen’s lunches. Is it endearing, or a parenting fail? He discusses with Holy Wainwright, on our podcast for imperfect parents. Post continues after audio.

1. Protein (1 serving).

Protein requirements differ at different ages, based on the body’s need for growth and repair. Young children need more protein than adults per kilogram of bodyweight. This often equates to children eating one to two serves of good quality protein on a daily basis. As a rough guide, children between one to three years require around 13g of protein per day, and children four to eight years need 19g of protein per day.

The best sources of lunchbox protein are lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs and good quality dairy products, plus vegetable proteins such as legumes, beans and seeds. My advice is to avoid processed deli meats whenever possible, because they are excessively high in sodium and also contain nitrates and nitrites.

For fussy eaters, protein is often problematic as favourites such as jam, Vegemite and honey sandwiches (which contain little to no protein) are usually preferred. In my book, I offer numerous strategies that encourage fussy eaters to start enjoying a wider variety of protein-rich school-friendly choices.

Mandy Sacher lunchbox
Healthy, fresh and colourful, kid's love devouring wraps. Add some chicken and you've got your protein sorted. Image supplied.
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Simple, school-friendly recipes and ideas to boost protein:

- Adding a boiled egg, or mashing it up with some tzatziki or mayo and adding to a whole grain sandwich or wrap
- Lamb koftas with tzatziki
- Chickpea and pumpkin patties
- Shredded leftover roast chicken, lamb or beef
- Healthy macaroni cheese - (recipe on page 59) portioned into cupcake cases
- Mini salmon quiches
- Tasty salmon and millet rissoles
- Tuna sushi rolls
- Chicken nuggets in a thermos with homemade tomato sauce on the side
- Leftover spaghetti bolognese in a thermos
- Beef and veggie meatballs
- Dips such as hummus and tzatziki to accompany veggie sticks
- Protein rich sandwich fillers such as ricotta spread and yellow cheese

2. Whole grain carbohydrates or starchy vegetables (1-2 servings).

Mandy Sacher lunchbox
Wholegrain crackers offer crunch and a delicious paired with a yummy dip. Image supplied.

White bread, pasta and crackers contain grain that has been stripped of its most valuable nutrients, turning them into simple or “empty” carbohydrates. All of the fibre, vitamins and minerals your growing child needs are eliminated during processing.

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In contrast, wholemeal bread, wholemeal pasta and wholegrain crackers, which contain whole grains (grains that are kept intact), contain the original phytonutrients and micronutrients, B vitamins (thiamine, riboflavin, niacin and folate), minerals (iron, magnesium, calcium, manganese and selenium) and dietary fibre which is essential for blood sugar level stabilisation and eliminating constipation.

One of the first things I advise families to do, is to swap processed grain products for whole grain options. Initially it could be as easy as swapping white bread for whole grain bread, or white rice for brown rice. These small changes make a big impact on a child’s daily nutrient intake. Swapping to wholegrains is the first of the eight steps covered in the Wholesome Child Book - and for many families, it’s the most important change.

3. Vegetables (two to three servings).

Adding veggies to the lunchbox is often easier said than done, but with enough encouragement and experimentation, children can learn to enjoy their vegetables.

Vegetables, along with protein are two of the things I find to be most commonly lacking in the average lunchbox. Eating plenty of veggies is tricky for many children, but if we encourage them to eat vegetables as part of their mid-morning snack, and if veggies regularly appear in the lunchbox, kids will gradually become more accepting of them.

And remember, when your child comes home with uneaten vegetables, avoid getting angry or giving up. Persistence is key.

Mandy Sacher lunchbox
Fussy eater? If you present their vegetables in colourful and fun ways, that's a sure-fire way to make sure they don't get bought back home. Image supplied.

So, how can vegetables be presented in creative and fun ways so they actually get eaten?

Once again, using a bento style lunch box is recommended – their different compartments encourage diversity, and they are visually far more appealing to little ones than the standard lunchbox.

To increase veggie intake, fill one to two bento compartments with cut-up or bite size vegetables. You can also boost other lunch box contents with veggies, such as healthy cauliflower pizzas, savoury vegetable scrolls, vegetable muffins or beef and veggie meatballs served in a wrap -- these finger foods are easy to eat and kids love them.

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Include vegetable sticks, baked vegetables (sweet potato wedges and baked pumpkin), for children who are already used to vegetable try steamed vegetables, add pasta sauce with vegetables and dips (nut-free pesto, guacamole with lemon juice, hummus, baba ganoush, tzatziki).

4. Healthy fats (one serving).

“Good” fats are important for all of us, but especially vital for growing children who need the nutrients and calories they contain.
Eating healthy fats provides children with essential fatty acids that are linked to improved concentration, learning abilities and behaviour. They also enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K; promote healthy development of vital organs including brain, eyes and skin; promote satiety (keep children feeling fuller for longer) and help to regulate hormone production.

How much fat should my child be eating?

From the age of four years and up, fats should contribute 25%-35% of a child’s total calorie intake. Depending on activity levels and gender, children aged four to eight need 1200 to 2000 calories, and kids aged nine to 13 require 1400 to 2600 calories. Based on these guidelines, children aged four to eight years need 33-78 grams of fat, and kids between the ages of nine to 13 require 39-101 grams of fat daily. *Individualised fat requirements for your child vary by age, gender and specific calorie needs.

It is also recommended that children over four consume 900 milligrams of omega-3s each day. Excellent sources of school-friendly healthy fats include avocado, chia seeds, nuts and seeds, salmon, sardines and extra virgin olive oil.

Simple, school-friendly recipe ideas that include whole grains, vegetables and healthy fats:

- Beetroot and spinach bliss balls
- Sweet potato latkes
- Coconut, quinoa and tuna nori wraps
- Cauliflower, cheese and chia falafels
- Veggie packed pasta sauce - served with whole grain pasta, rice, quinoa etc.
- Coconut lamb meatloaf
- Apricot and coconut muesli bars - school friendly!
- Flaxseed crackers (school friendly on page 185 of my book) - with avocado or guacamole dip

5. Calcium rich foods (one serving).

Calcium is an essential vitamin and mineral to be included in the lunchbox. The RDI for children aged one to eight is 500mg-700mg of calcium. Calcium creates healthy bones and teeth, aids in muscle contraction and relaxation and contributes to the development of a healthy nervous system.

Children typically obtain their calcium from dairy sources such as milk, yoghurt and cheese. There are however many non-dairy foods that contain calcium, and can also be used to contribute to your child’s daily calcium intake. Lunchbox friendly choices include berries, chickpeas or hummus, dark leafy greens, mandarin, seaweed, canned salmon or sardines with bones, broccoli, lentils and sesame seeds or tahini.

If you’d like more practical advice on nutritional lunchbox ideas visit the Wholesome Child Website. Mandy’s book, Wholesome Child: A Complete Nutrition Guide and Cookbook, is available for purchase online and from iTunes, or connect with Mandy on Instagram and Facebook.

LISTEN: The Carnivore’s Guide to Raising a Vegan. This week on our podcast about family life, we find out what to do when your teen is the only vego at the dinner table. Plus, could headphones be sending your kids deaf?

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