According to a survey by Mintel, nearly half of all UK kids say they prefer to have a packed lunch rather than a school meal, which is why some five million children’s lunchboxes are prepared in British homes every day.
However, a nationwide survey has also found 99 out of 100 packed lunches are filled to the brim with unhealthy foods. Not only were lunch boxes found to be below the nutritional standards set for school meals but that crisps, sweets and sugary drinks took precedence over more nutritious foods such as fruit, and vegetables. All of which is bad news for your kids as this type of food not only diminishes mental alertness, but also exacerbates afternoon tiredness, and eventual weight gain.
What to pack
The good news is a healthy lunch box is easier to make than you might think and more tempting than your child might imagine.
Experts at the Food Standards Agency suggest the perfect packed lunch should contain:
- A source of protein – chicken, cheese, tuna or eggs
- Complex carbohydrate – wholemeal bread, rice or pasta
- A source of calcium
- Fruit and vegetables
- A drink
While sandwiches are the number one favourite lunch box item you can make these healthier even if your kids only eat white bread. Try buying bread that is mixed with wholemeal flour, or a different type of bread such as a wrap, pitta bread or seeded loaf. As for fillings opt for lean meats and/or make your own centre (as opposed to buying ready made which is usually high in salt) and add salad or vegetables. For a calcium fix try putting fromage frais or yoghurts of the tube variety in a lunch box. If the sugar count is high (check the label), opt for plain yoghurt mixed with fruit pieces or stewed fruit.
Variety is key
Also be aware that, “Lunch” says food guru Annabel Karmal (www.annabelkarmel.com) “doesn’t always have to be a boring sandwich with a high fat/sugar snack. It can be a small pot of pasta or rice salad, chicken on a skewer, soup, and/or raw vegetables.” Annabel’s suggestions for a packed lunch your kids will actually eat are:
- Get your child involved in making their own lunches by shopping together and choosing food that they say would like to eat.
- Make salads, wraps and even cook healthy muffins together. Your kids are more likely to eat something that they have made themselves.
- Cut up fruit so it actually gets eaten. Children are notoriously lazy about eating and are more likely to eat fruit that is peeled and pre-cut.
- Try threading pieces of fruit on a straw or place in small plastic box. Avoid messy and sticky fruit like peaches and plums; as children will leave food that takes a lot of effort to eat.
- Use leftovers that went down well from dinner, so you know they’ll be eaten.
Be smart about snacks
As for policing your child’s lunch box for food baddies, “a small treat is not a bad thing,” says Annabel, “moderation with children is key if you want to teach them to be sensible about food and snacking.”
- Opt for a healthier snacking alternative to crisps and biscuits. Annabel has produced a healthy range of rice and corn snacks, and 100% natural fruit crisps (available from ASDA and Morrisons or www.annabelkarmel.com/disney/index.html).
- Avoid crisps that are heavy in salt and saturated fat. Substitute savoury snacks such as toasted seeds, bread sticks and oatcakes are a good alternative.
- A small kid’s size chocolate bar or biscuit is fine.
Think about drinks
Finally give careful consideration to the drinks you pack in a lunch box. One study found over half of lunchboxes often came packed with a juice carton and a milk carton, when just one drink is needed. Experts say plain water is the best option and if you want to add an extra drink choose a healthy one like a smoothie.
Forget fizzy drinks, even the diet variety (which are full of additives), and avoid fruit ‘juice’ drinks, which are high in sugar. Instead opt for either 100% fruit drinks or a simple fruit smoothie, though make sure that whatever you are choosing is a kid’s size portion with no nasty added extras.