Deciding what to put in your child’s lunchbox can seem as difficult as choosing the school in which they will eat it. The good news is, navigating the world of lunchbox nutrition isn’t as complicated as it might appear, especially with the number of options open to most parents of children attending Australian schools
Probably the most sure-fire way of monitoring what your child eats is to prepare it yourself. Nutrition Australia considers a healthy lunchbox to contain four components:
A small snack — based on a whole fruit or small serving of cut-up vegetables, small salad or cup of canned fruit in natural juice.
The main item — this is usually based around a cereal/high-fibre vehicle such as a sandwich, wrap, roll, but can even include pasta, quiche/frittata or sushi.
A second snack — based on a core
food such as reduced-fat cheese with grain crackers, plain popcorn, wholemeal muffin, reduced-fat yoghurt, boiled egg or can
A drink — water being the best option, but plain milk or watered-down juice is also acceptable. In many cases, the above foods can be prepared the night before and refrigerated to keep contents as fresh as possible and to leave precious morning minutes devoted to getting your child ready for school.
Educating your child about nutrition at home is the most effective way of ensuring they eat well at school.
In 2010 the Federal government implemented the National Healthy School Canteens Guidelines to provide regulation and training for canteen managers across the country to make healthier food and drink choices for their canteens, and the results have been promising. A recent survey by the Australian Schools Canteen Association found more secondary students were aware of healthier food options and a whopping 80 per cent of canteen managers reported that canteens now prepare more food themselves rather than merely heating and serving.
It’s not hard to find out from the school what choices are on their canteen menus, and going through the options with your child so they are aware of the foods they are allowed to eat.
What needs to be kept in mind when choosing the canteen option, however, is that profitability is key. This means the menus are often based on what foods sell, rather than what are the healthiest options.
An option that has grown to become one of the most popular in recent years is online food ordering. Some schools offer this as part of their own canteen, with online access to the menu for ordering and purchase. Not all school canteens have this option so it is worth asking the questions when assessing school choices.
One of the fastest-growing alternatives to this is purchasing via third-party online businesses such as MunchMonitor, Flexischools or School24. They act as intermediaries between parents and schools, allowing for the establishment of accounts for round-the-clock, safe and convenient online ordering. Many have features such as allergy warnings that can alert canteen staff when preparing meals and other dietary requirements your child may have.
None of the above matters much if your child doesn’t eat the food they are given. There are never any guarantees but there are a few steps that can be taken to improve the odds.
Don’t be fooled by flashy marketing that promotes pre-packaged food as a healthy option. Often muesli bars and muffins contain sugars and fats that turn what looks like a nutritious snack into junk food. The best option is to make these snacks from scratch.
Try and get your child involved in the selection and/or preparation of their lunchbox. If doing it yourself, make some high-fibre muffins together with younger children — they’ll have a ball cooking in the kitchen and be able to brag to their friends that they cooked their recess themselves. Similarly, if ordering online, have younger children with you to help. This will be empowering for your child and can also be viewed as an exercise in reading and nutrition. Once your child has the right nutritional background, you will know when they are old enough and responsible enough to do this themselves.
Some schools make younger students eat lunch inside their classrooms before being released to play. This can be a fantastic strategy, especially for high-energy kids who find it impossible to sit down to eat once they are out in the playground. Other initiatives such as “Crunch and Sip” or “Fruit Break”, where schools encourage children to bring a healthy snack, can assist children to digest more nutritious foods throughout the day.
Educating your child about nutrition at home is the most effective way of ensuring they eat well at school. There’s not much hope a child will eat salad at school if they aren’t given it at home. Making sure your child understands meal times are for eating, not watching television or running around the table, will teach them to take the time to eat properly at school.
Read more in the latest issue of Choosing a School New South Whales