What do kids need in their lunchbox? Is it healthy enough? Will the kids actually eat it? Lots of parents worry about what their kids do – and don’t- eat at school.
School lunches: what do you need to know?
- Kids only eat about 20% of their daily food at school. So if they don’t eat a whole lot of lunch, it’s not a big deal. They will be getting most of their nutrition from their breakfast, after-school snack, and dinner. No need to panic.
- Kids don’t get a whole lot of time to eat in school. And they can be too busy talking to their friends to remember to eat. It takes a while for most kids to get used to eating at school. So don’t assume that they didn’t like their lunch if they didn’t eat it. Ask them if they remembered to eat or if they ran out of time. This is especially true for junior and senior infants.
- Do give them lunchboxes and wrappers that are easy to open. There is only one teacher for up to 30 kids – with the best will in the world the teacher is not going to be able to open every lunchbox and peel every orange. Practice getting your child to open their lunchbox and unwrap their food. See what works and what doesn’t. And no cling film. Young kids just can’t manage it.
What should go in a lunchbox?
The most important thing to put in a lunchbox is something your child will actually eat. In an ideal world this is a lovely sandwich with healthy protein and lots of salad. In real life this might be a packet of gluten-free crackers and a handful of grapes. Below is some guidance on what is ideal but you can take it as a target to work towards for your child.
Carbs: carb foods like gluten free bread, crackers and wraps will give your child energy for running around and concentration. Sandwiches are very popular and are handy for lunchboxes. Some children might also eat a gluten-free pasta salad or rice salad.
Protein foods: Protein is essential for helping children grow and protein foods are often a source of iron and other minerals. Ham is a popular filling for sandwiches but try not to give children processed meats like ham every day. Sliced chicken, turkey, hardboiled eggs, tuna, gluten-free hummus and cheddar cheese are all good sources of protein. You could also try adding kidney beans or chickpeas to a gluten-free pasta salad (if you have an adventurous child!).
Fruit and vegetables: These are great for vitamins and minerals as well as adding some fibre. Add some lettuce, tomatoes or cucumber to sandwiches, add carrot or celery sticks to the lunchbox or pop in an easy-to-peel or already-peeled mandarin orange. Try a kiwi cut in half to eat with a teaspoon, a small bunch of grapes or a soft fruit like peach or plum for older children.
Calcium: Children need lots of calcium for healthy bones and teeth. Dairy foods like milk, cheese and yoghurt are all rich in calcium. Try cheese in a sandwich (remember this also counts as a protein), add a yoghurt or give them a small carton of milk to drink. Some kids won’t eat yoghurt or drink milk if it gets warm. If this is your child, don’t worry – just give them some milk, cheese or yoghurt as part of their after-school snack.
Drink: Water and milk are the best drinks for kids. Low sugar squashes that are well diluted can be used occasionally. Unsweetened fruit juice can be useful but it has a lot of acid which can attack teeth so it is best taken with meals, not by itself. Fizzy drinks have a lot of sugar and acid and are best kept as a special treat, not for lunchboxes. Bottom line? Water or milk are the best options.
Treats: Most children and adults enjoy something sweet at the end of a meal but many parents are concerned about giving their children treat foods. Although there is no problem giving children a treat now and again, it is probably best not to get them into the habit of always having something sweet at the end of every meal.
Most schools have a healthy eating policy that limits treats to Fridays. If you do want to give your child a treat, do keep it small. Fun-size, gluten-free, chocolate, a small packet of jellies and small bags of gluten-free crisps (the ones you buy in a six pack are usually smaller). Many children enjoy a yoghurt and this can make a nutritious treat in a lunchbox instead. Fruit can also be used as a ‘dessert’, especially if your child is used to having fruit as a dessert at home. Small tubs of custard or rice pudding make a great treat and are rich in calcium. Children can also be fascinated by exotic fruits – mangoes, paw paws, ugli fruit or starfruit. There is no problem with a child having an occasional treat but children in Ireland already eat more fat and sugar than is recommended and children fill up very quickly on ‘adult’ sized treats. If they are having a treat at school do make sure to limit treats at home – a small treat 2-3 times per week is okay but not everyday!
- Do ask your child what they would like by giving options – try asking: “Would you like a cheese sandwich or a chicken sandwich; would you like water or milk to drink; would you like cucumber or tomatoes in your sandwich” and so on. Don’t ask “what do you want?”. This can overwhelm a young child as there are just so many options.
- Do think about a weekly “menu” for lunch so you don’t have to ask everyday. This is something you and your child can plan together and it takes some of the stress out of busy school mornings. Plan what is for Monday, Tuesday etc. and see how it goes. Getting kids involved in planning lunch can really help.
- Don’t worry if your child asks for the same lunch everyday. As long as it covers all (or most…) of the nutrients they need, there is no problem if they eat the same sandwich for the whole school year.
- Do encourage your child to eat a wide variety of foods at home – this makes it easier for you to give them a greater variety of foods in their lunchbox.
- Don’t panic if they don’t eat everything you give them. It is a rare child who eats perfectly and as long as they are eating a well-balanced breakfast and dinner, it’s not a problem. Do encourage your child to try new foods at home and as they get used to them, you can add them to the lunchbox.
- Do use your imagination. You can have fun experimenting with different foods and combinations. Encourage your children to help you come up with lunch box ideas– kids are often more willing to eat new foods if they have helped to choose them.