Breakfast may well be the most important meal of the day and children who eat breakfast are more likely to concentrate and perform better at school than children who start the school day with an empty stomach. Making sure they get a balanced nutritious lunch is just as important, and creating a healthy lunchbox that contains adequate amounts of all the necessary nutrients required for healthy growth and activity is not as hard as you might think.
A healthy and balanced packed lunch should contain:
- Complex carbohydrates (also called starches); avoid white bread, choosing instead unrefined carbohydrates such as whole grain bread, pitta bread or rye bread is important, as these are more nutritious and much better for you because they retain nutrients and fibre which are removed in the manufacturing of white refined flour . For gluten-free options try products derived from corn, potatoes, rice, or tapioca – good options can be found in health food shops, and most supermarkets now have a good range of gluten-free products in the ‘free from’ aisle.
- Protein-rich food such as lean meat and meat products, fish, eggs, tofu, beans and pulses
- Some dairy such as (non-processed) cheese cubes, cottage cheese or yoghurt, or for those children who are dairy intolerant or vegan, there is an increasing variety of non-dairy cheese and yoghurt products now available in many good health food shops
- A piece of fruit or some vegetable crudités
- Water and milk are the healthiest drinks for children. Whilst fruit juice is fine in moderation – ideally it should be watered down because of its acidity which can, over time, affect tooth enamel. Do your best to avoid highly sweetened juice drinks, squashes and fizzy drinks
Try to incorporate at least one or two of your child’s ‘five-a-day’ such as raw vegetables or a small mixed salad, with a portion of fruit or dried fruit. Different coloured fruit and vegetables contain different nutrients, so offer your child a good variety to ensure they are getting the best possible health benefits from the food they eat. Some children are, however, intolerant to naturally occurring products called salicylates found in many fruits and vegetables. These compounds are associated with an increased risk of developing or exacerbating hyperactivity, so it’s sensible to avoid fruit and vegetables known to have a high content such as citrus fruits, peppers and tomatoes if your child has ADHD.
Alternate sandwiches with other starchy carbohydrates such as bagels, pitta bread, rye bread, rice cakes, wraps or rolls and use brown, wholemeal or seeded bread but not white bread. Breadsticks or wholemeal crackers can also be introduced for variety, and include chopped up raw vegetables such as carrots, celery or peppers, with hummus or cottage cheese as a dip can be tasty alternatives to standard sandwiches. If you feel creative you can replace sandwiches with couscous, pasta, bean or rice salad.
Whilst starchy food can help fill the stomach and provide instant energy, protein is digested more slowly and keeps ‘lunchbox kids’ satisfied and fuelled for longer. Chicken, lean meat, cheese and eggs are all rich sources of protein; fish is also highly nutritious. In particular, oily fish such as salmon is rich in protein, essential vitamins and minerals, as well as omega-3 fats known to provide the brainpower to help keep children alert and focused.
Avoid chocolate bars and cakes. Fresh fruit or dried fruit are good alternatives if your child has a sweet tooth. Vary the fruit each day and get them to try new things, or make up a small tasty fruit salad. Kids love variety so try to be inventive and encourage your children to try something new. If your child turns their nose up to certain foods or flavours, don’t force them, but do reintroduce the food after a couple of months as children’s tastes are continually changing and developing. Making your child’s lunch box pleasing to the eye by incorporating colour and plenty of variety will help encourage healthy eating.
Encourage your child to take some responsibility for what goes into their lunch box. Let them, for example, choose the filling for sandwiches or the piece of fruit for that day. Children respond well if they feel they have choice in what they eat.
Finally, eating too much (even with all the right foods) can make us put on unnecessary weight. Make sure the portion size is relevant to the person and his/her age and activity level. For example, cut up fruit such as apples or pre-peel oranges as this makes it easier and less fiddly for small children and makes portion control much easier to manage. Many of us in the UK eat too much processed and ready-made foods, saturated fat, sugar and salt and not enough fruit and vegetables and whole grains, which is believed to lead to the increasing incidence of obesity observed in British children. Ensure your child eats a wholesome breakfast and try to avoid sugary breakfast cereals by opting for something like porridge, which is known to release energy slowly and help them to get through the school morning more alert and without tiredness. Follow this with our healthy lunch box ideas and you are on your way to providing your child with the nutrients needed to help them concentrate and perform better at school.
Here are some menu ideas to help your child on the way to healthier eating, although you may need to adapt these for those children with gluten, diary or salicylate issues.
Egg and cress wrap (for a gluten-free option, try using iceberg lettuce leaf to ‘wrap’ the filling instead of a tortilla)
Satsuma (you may want this pre-peeled)
Orange juice diluted with sparkling water
Handful of mixed fruit and nuts
Salmon and cucumber wholemeal roll (use gluten-free crispbread or rice cakes for gluten-free)
Banana milk shake
Handful of raspberries
Apple, cored and cut into sections
Bottle of sparkling or still water
Crudités (celery, carrot, cucumber and peppers) with hummus and cottage cheese
Small oatmeal bar (sugar-free if possible)
Homemade smoothie (blended yoghurt, milk and fruit)
Cheese and marmite wholegrain sandwich (or a gluten-free ciabatta roll)
Handful of dried fruit pieces such as mango or apple
Apple juice diluted with sparkling water