One of the things that’s often top of mind for parents of kids starting school for the first time is lunch boxes. There’s a lot to consider from which lunch box you should buy, to what and how much you should pack. When planning a lunch box for your school starter it helps to consider practical things first – here’s a checklist you can work your way through.
1. What type of lunch box?
For primary school-aged kids, I’m a huge fan of “bento” style boxes, preferably one with the lid attached so there’s less to lose. These style of lunch boxes allow kids to see everything that’s been packed for the day and pick and mix from what’s on offer. You don’t necessarily need to
follow the traditional format of a snack and sandwich with these boxes, rather think of them as being a little like a small buffet of snacks and more substantial foods. The other advantage of a bento box is that you only have 1 container to wash at the end of the day plus they are perfect for sending more “nude food” to school, encouraging us all to be waste-free. Other practical considerations when choosing a lunch box include how easy it is for your child to open (practice at home first), how heavy it is and what it’s made from. These days you can get a variety of lunchboxes from stainless steel, plastic and bamboo.
2. How many food breaks do I need to pack for?
Check with your school but most primary schools follow a fairly standard structure of an early
brain break (this might be called crunch n sip or healthy break), recess and lunch. Some schools require brain breaks and recess foods to be packed separately, so consider this when buying your lunch box.
3. What to pack.
This is possibly the hardest part for most of us. While some of you are probably brimming with ideas and excitement over packing that first lunch box, inevitably groundhog day sets in and you start to wonder what else can I pack? Having a packing formula for your lunchboxes can help make sure you’ve considered your child’s nutritional needs and speed up the packing process. As a general rule of thumb, I like to pack 2 snacks (1 sweet and 1 savoury), some chopped up veggies (or include in a sandwich), your main lunch item and some fruit. As kids get around 30% of their daily nutrition at school, it’s important that we include the major food groups. Try and tick off each of the following:
- Breads & Cereals – preferably wholegrain for added fibre, eg bread, baked goods, rice, pasta or couscous.
- Vegetables – cut up veggie sticks, as a filling for wraps or sandwiches, tinned or dried chickpeas or other lentils and legumes, dips such as hummus or babaganoush or even add them to a smoothie.
- Fruit – Dried or fresh fruit, fruit straps with no added sugar, bliss balls or try adding to a smoothie
- Dairy Products – Cheese, yoghurt and milk or calcium fortified alternatives such as soy milk. Dairy foods also double as a source of protein in your lunchboxes.
- Protein Foods – meat (chicken, ham, luncheon meats, leftovers), tinned tuna, seeds (consider
adding these to your baked goods), lentils/legumes and tofu.
The internet and social media provide an endless source of inspiration for school lunches but it’s not always helpful. It’s worth keeping in mind that a lot of what you see on social media is styled for display. Extra time has gone into making many of those Pinterest worthy lunchboxes with the very aim of making you stop scrolling and pay attention (I know this because I have studied food styling and photography for my own account). Your lunch boxes don’t need to be works of art to be healthy and delicious. You also don’t need to be a slave to your kitchen and make everything from scratch. Whilst I’m a big fan of baking many of my kids’ snacks ( you can generally get a bit more nutrition into something you’ve made yourself, eg by adding seeds, fruit or whole grains to baked goods) I supplement their lunch boxes with plenty of store-bought goods too. Head over to my website and subscribe to my top dietitian-approved list of supermarket snacks for kids.
When things go wrong…..
I suspect there will be a great many times over your child’s school years that you will be in troubleshooting lunch boxes so let’s break down some of the biggest issues and what to do about them
The child who comes home with a full lunch box
This is common when kids start school. Kids are learning to juggle a new social situation, a huge new sensory experience and often less time to eat. Prioritise favourite foods that are quick and easy to eat. A big messy salad filled sandwich may be quite a lot to handle for a young child. Cheese, crackers and an apple might be better suited.
The fussy child
It’s perfectly normal for many school-aged kids to still be fussy eaters. It’s important for parents to recognise that most fussy eaters are doing the best that they can with food. If a child hasn’t eaten a portion of food at home it’s unlikely they will suddenly start eating it in their lunch box. That doesn’t mean you have to stick to just safe foods. Offering a very small token amount of new or non-preferred food (eg 1 slice of cucumber) can be a good learning tool. If your child is really fussy it’s worth talking to a specialist feeding therapist (this may be a dietitian, speech pathologist or OT). Some kids have issues with sensory processing and regulation which can make eating even more difficult. This can be amplified in the school setting by factors such as a (very) noisy environment, overwhelming smells (as all the kids get their food out) or tables and chairs not offering the right support.
The busy child
Many kids prioritise playing overeating. As your child moves through primary school you’ll likely find there is less time set aside for eating. Again grab and go options are great for ensuring these kids actually eat something during the school day. A smoothie has worked wonders for my busy
kids that prefer to secure than handball court rather than eat their lunch.
Like the busy child, the “talker” will spend the entire lunchtime chatting with their friends only to realise lunch has finished and they are yet to eat anything. These kids need to be greeted with a filling snacks after school and prioritise small nutrient-dense snacks in the lunch boxes like bliss balls and black bean brownies. Think smoothies, cheese and crackers or fruit salad and Milo for after school.
What not to do….
As parents, we have a natural instinct to nurture and provide and that translates into us wanting our kids to eat at school. This instinct makes it extremely tempting for us to analyse the contents of the lunchboxes at the end of the day and give our kids the Spanish inquisition as to why they
didn’t eat this or that. Whilst this approach is well-intentioned, it often backfires. When we are overly inquisitive as to what or how much food our kids eat, it actually puts pressure on them. When kids feel under pressure to eat, or not to disappoint their parents, it can actually lead to less desire to eat as anxiety reduces our appetite.
That’s not to say that you can never ask them for feedback on their lunch box, just be mindful of the language you use. You might say something like “Hey, I’ve noticed you’re not eating much, is there anything different you’d like me to include in your lunch boxes?”.
Similarly, many parents first port of call when their child continually comes home with an uneaten lunch box is the teacher. Whilst a chat with the teacher can be useful for identifying some factors that might be contributing to your child not eating, avoid at all cost getting the teacher to intervene and request that they eat a certain amount of food, or that they eat food “x” before food “y”. A child who feels anxious at lunchtime is likely to have a low appetite. Forcing that child to eat will only make them feel more anxious and upset about eating at school. Trust that your child can do a good job of eating and remember the golden rule of feeding children which is that the parents provide (the food) and kids decide whether to not to eat and how much. No one other than your child can truly know how hungry or full they are.