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by Sheena Hendon Author of Parenting book Cool for School

What our children eat is in the spotlight as New Zealand faces a growing child obesity epidemic. Sheena Hendon prepares a day’s worth of healthy foods to take to school and provides some hints on helping kids themselves make healthier choices.

What we put in our children’s lunchbox – indeed, what the school itself is giving them to eat – has a serious impact on our kids’ health. With 21 percent of children overweight and 9.8 percent obese, according to the Health Ministry’s first National Children’s Nutrition Survey, the consequences of providing children with poor food can last well beyond childhood. It is well documented that children who eat well during the day concentrate better on work and get better qualifications. Eating poorly also increases the long-term risks of diabetes and other illnesses.

Improvements in the meal choices offered by schools are underway. But it cannot be ignored that, according to one survey of school menus, less healthy mains still outnumber healthy mains by over five-to-one, and less healthy snacks outrank healthier snacks by nine-to-one. Some 85 percent of children aged between five and 14 bring most of their food from home, but 58 percent report buying some or most of their food from the canteen. Kids who buy from the canteen are more likely to frequently consume high-fat/high-sugar foods than non-tuckshop users.

As caregivers, our role is not only to send our kids to school with a lunchbox containing healthy foods they want to eat. It’s also to help them learn about food so they can make healthy food choices themselves.

Tips for school lunches

Variety is the spice of life

No child is going to enjoy their lunch if the same thing is put in front of them every day. Saying that, kids often do prefer routine, so do ask them what they like and incorporate at least some of their favourite foods (perhaps modified to increase the health factor). That way, it’s less likely to come home uneaten.

Variety also enables your kids to get their full quota of nutrients such as carbohydrates, fats, protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Variety also means a choice of textures – crunchy vegetables, foods to chew on, yoghurt, stewed fruits, and colour. Aim for orange, red, purple and green fruits and vegetables.

What sort of lunchbox?

One with individual compartments or a large box that will fit a number of smaller, sealed, containers is a great idea to keep food appealing, even towards the end of the day.

What to include

As a rule of thumb, the lunchbox should include bread, or rice or pasta (for energy), fruit, dairy, a drink and a snack. Remember to pack an extra carbohydrate-rich snack, if your kids are going straight from school to a sports event or after-school activities. This will tide them over until dinnertime.

  • Sandwiches

Sandwiches are a great way to meet most lunchtime nutritional needs. For variety, use different bread types – from pita pockets, flat bread (wraps) or burritos – mixed with a protein filling such as tuna, salmon, egg mayonnaise, cheese, peanut or almond butter, cream cheese, chicken, beef, tofu or hummus. Add a little lettuce, corn kernels or grated carrots. Cut into small, interesting shapes and wrap into two separate parcels, so each can be unwrapped and eaten separately at different times of the day.

A pasta or rice salad containing cooked rice or pasta mixed with a tin of tuna or salmon, fresh red pepper, raisins or corn kernels is a delicious alternative.

  • Fresh fruit

Provide the equivalent of one to two whole fruits. Kids often find fruit more appealing if it is cut up for them. Try a small container of chopped seasonal fruit. Aim for those fruits that stay fresher longer.

  • Pot of yoghurt

Aim for a pottle of acidophilus yoghurt but steer away from the sweetened kind, or flavoured dairy food.

  • Other foods to include

Boost children’s daily veg intake by including carrot sticks, celery or small tomatoes as a snack.

Include plain biscuits such as wholemeal digestives, homemade wholemeal muffins or a wholemeal cereal bar as a sweet, energy, treat.

As a healthier alternative to potato chips, try rice wheels, rice crackers or unsweetened popcorn.

Mini boxes of raisins or dried fruit are usually a welcome snack.

  • Drinks

Include a frozen or cold bottle of water. This will not only provide kids with a healthy beverage but will keep foods cold and more appealing. Do not send juice or cordial to school.

Hints on getting your kids to eat their lunch

Involve your child with lunch selections. Discuss options for the week’s lunches, giving choices, and take the child shopping to choose some of the food items.

Ask your child what he/she likes in friends’ lunches and include these in return for them eating something that you consider important.

Include non-edible surprises in lunch boxes occasionally. Add a note, riddle, joke, game, plastic toy or puzzle. Your kids will love it.

Healthy hints

  • Keep portions small and provide lots of little items wrapped separately to make the food more attractive.
  • Mashed avocado is a delicious and healthy spread substitute.
  • Check out for great recipes and tips to help get littlies (and adults) eating more fruit and veg.

Five tips to get kids making healthy food choices

Getting your children into healthy habits, beliefs and behaviours around foods at an early age can only assist them in making good choices when they leave the nest.

       1. Educate your kids about food

It is never too early to explain to your kids about the part foods play in their wellbeing. Find ways of explaining the positive benefits of health foods in a way that appeals – understanding what foods will help them run faster or make the school team is more motivating than knowing it will help them live until they are 90! If you are unsure what constitutes a healthy diet, it’s time to get up with the play. Visit the library or attend a seminar or workshop on healthy eating run by a health practitioner.

2. Do not use foods as a bribe or reward

I often hear mums saying something along the lines of, ‘if you eat your greens you can have dessert’.If you offer Food B as a reward for eating Food A then, in essence, you are telling them that Food B is a desirable food and Food A is not desirable. That’s usually opposite to the health message you have in your mind.

 3. Make the transition from junk food grazing to structured and healthy meals

For obvious reasons, we need to encourage our children to eat good, wholesome, foods, rather than takeaways and processed foods. If your child is overdoing the junk food, here is a way you might want to tackle the transition to healthy eating.

  • Explain why some (not-so healthy) foods now need to become treats. Do this in a positive/motivational way that will appeal to them – e.g. so you can make the school team, stop getting sick, run faster, have more energy, do well at school, get fitter…
  • Then make a deal with the child (if old enough) and write down: how many treats they can have a week – e.g. four treats a week, what constitutes a treat – e.g. one bag of chips, one pie, one can of fizzy drink, one icecream etc, when the treat can be eaten – e.g. Friday night watching a movie, a pie for           school lunch midweek, an icecream with a friend on Saturday afternoon…
  • Write the agreement as a contract on paper and both sign it.

It is important to involve your child in the transaction process and to explain why these foods are now treats so they don’t think they are being punished or feel humiliated.

A star chart is a great idea – once a child has gained a certain number of star stickers in a certain period of time (ideally a week), he or she is given a (non-food) reward. The reward and time period are agreed at the start of the contract.

4. Get your kids involved in shopping, preparation and cooking

One sure way to get kids interested in eating well is by involving them in the whole process from an early age. Even two-year-olds can mix the muffin mixture, shred some lettuce or arrange a cut tomato on a plate. Older kids can help make snacks – muffins, muesli slices – put together their own lunchboxes (with your help), add toppings to pizza, decorate fairy cakes and, once they are old enough, cook a meal for themselves or the family (from something as simple as beans on toast to making apple crumble). Let children find shopping items for you while at the supermarket. Ask their advice on which foods to buy – berries or peaches, spaghetti ribbons or twirls – and let them help pack/unpack the shopping.

Note: ensure your child is not in any danger – hot elements, knives, mixing blades while cooking/preparing food.

5. Teach your child healthy eating habits at home

Use family mealtimes as opportunities to teach your children healthy eating habits so they are better equipped to make good choices when you aren’t around.

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