At the beginning of a new term parents are often primed with nutrition goals, and the energy to fulfil them. But sometimes, particularly as a school term progresses, it can feel like you are a B track stuck on repeat – making the same lunch box, over and over again.
Pretty soon either you or your children tire of this lunch rut, or you may start to realise that through this lack of variety, your child is missing the mark on Australian Dietary Guideline # 2 – exposure to and enjoyment of wide variety of foods.
When you want to make changes, it can seem a world away to reach some of the insta-perfect lunches online – especially if you have a fussy eater in the family, or don’t have huge amounts of time on your hands for cartoon style lunch box prep. But here are some tips that get you moving in the right direction for both variety and nutrition, but don’t require hours of painstaking preparation.
Think outside the (lunch)box
It doesn’t have to come in a packet to be a recess snack… Look at the types of foods your children will choose for themselves when they open the refrigerator, and aim to add these fresh foods to the lunch box. If you or your kids do really like packets (for portability, freshness or keeping foods separated), buy some reusable or biodegradable ziplock bags and put real food in. My lunch boxes will often have throw in fridge staples of berries, mini cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, cheese sticks or yogurt portions.
If you are choosing pre packaged snacks, try to stick to those that contain core foods (like fruit, veg, dairy, whole grains), and fit the healthy canteen guidelines of <600kg (~140 Cal) and 3g or less of saturated fat per serve. This doesn’t mean a food is automatically the most healthy choice, but it does mean the food will contain more nutrients if it contains some core foods, and the portion size of these foods is more acceptable. Ideally try to get foods with the highest fibre content too, if it’s listed on the label, aim for 2g or more per serve. Here are some of my favourite lunch box packaged snacks to throw in at the last minute.
It doesn’t have to be sandwiches… Use breakfast items or dinner leftovers for lunches. Think omelette rolls, half an avocado squeezed with lemon, cereal and berries to dump into a yogurt pot, leftover cold meat, eggs, quiche, salad, roast veggies or left over pasta, soup, curry, etc served in a thermos. Jump on pinterest and search non sandwich lunches – theres a whole host of ideas.
Get the kids on board
Ask each child to write a list of everything they are happy to have in their lunch box, food group by food group (use the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating -AGHE- picture as a prompt), and from breakfast items or your regular dinner rotations. Help them be as specific as they can, so you know how many different options are on offer. For example from the Dairy group the list might include – Fresh milk in a bottle, UHT milk box, Flavoured milk box, cheese slice, grated cheese, cheese stick, string cheese, bocconcini balls, cow cheese triangles, babble cheese, natural yogurt, flavoured yogurt, custard pots, chia puddings….. list everything they like to eat from each group to maximise your options! Stick this list up on the fridge for easy reference, and to allow the addition of new items as you progress.
Get kids involved with the preparation. I know we’ve said it before, but it really does help! On the weekend, see if you can make a healthy baked item with your kids – muffins, biscuits, scrolls, brownies, quiches etc, to freeze for the week ahead. Getting kids involved increases their ownership of that healthy food, and the likelihood that they will eat and enjoy it. Try to make a different recipe each weekend to find new family favourites. Try recipes that don’t have too much added sugar, and include ingredients like wholemeal flour, oats, fruits, veggies, eggs, yogurt, olive oil or ground seeds for nutrient boosts.
If kids are making their own lunches, ask them to pick something out of each category of the AGHE plate for their lunchbox – so 1 fruit, 1 veg, 1 carb option (worth a couple of serves), 1 protein, 1 dairy. Spy any gaps – in food groups, or the amount of food they need, and either they or you can throw in an extra choice if needed.
This is a term which describes the technique of applying very small changes to the types of foods a child will eat, to increase the acceptability of new foods and improve variety. It’s a system that works well with extremely picky eaters, or highly sensitive or selective children, like kids with ASD, or kids with a past history of medical conditions that affected their feeding, like food allergies or reflux. You can read more about it here.
With some children you may need to make what feel like sideways steps with nutrition, to make gains in variety. By this I mean choosing foods that aren’t necessarily more healthy, to increase the variety of food eaten. While at first their nutrition might not seem to be much improved, if the approach is consistent and progressive, it will eventually lead to eating more of all types of foods, including healthy foods.
So for these kids’ lunch boxes, think swapping foods for “close cousins”. Plain water crackers for water crackers with sesame seeds, or plain rice crackers, then onto puffed rice crackers or puffed vegetable crisps with sesame seeds, then something slightly different again. These are small steps, but they slowly introduce children to a wider variety of food. (If making even these very small steps is too difficult or distressing for your child, or you feel like this approach is something that you could benefit from some guidance with, see an Accredited Practicing Dietitian or Speech Pathologist in your area who is trained in the SOS Approach to Feeding).
Finally – if your kids are naturally less adventurous with food – it’s ok to take small, but consistent, steps to improve things. Over time, these small changes will make way to bigger changes in dietary patterns. With consistency, encouragement and a greater involvement with foods (see our post on “From fussy to fabulous – Helping your child enjoy new family meals”) children can successfully broaden their variety and improve their nutrition, to be healthy, feel great, and grow well.
Now that’s winning.
x Angela @ Bloom 🌿