School lunches… I can hear you groaning from here. They are one of those chores that causes a lot of worry and stress.

I believe that we, as parents, put a lot of pressure on ourselves to produce wonderful, varied, healthy lunches for school and kindy. But is the worry really necessary?

If you google lunch box ideas you’ll get over a million options to choose from. Some of the sites offer 50 different ideas! From the fantastically creative lunch box art to the traditional savoury muffin. It’s no wonder that we get worried. If there are so many options why are we not providing them?

I believe there are a few reasons why we end up sticking to the same old same old:

  • It takes time and effort to think of, and prepare new things. We have the best of intentions but when it comes down to it there always seems to be something more important to do instead.
  • The foods that we see on websites or in cookbooks just don’t appeal. Either we don’t like the look of them or we can’t imagine our kids accepting them.
  • We like what we have. We send our kids off to school with the food that we do for a reason. It is familiar to us and to our kids.

Are varied lunches for us or our children?

We send our kids off to school with lunch about 200 days of the year. It’s a lot of lunches. No wonder we get bored making the same old thing. The problem is that it’s us parents that are bored. It’s not usually the children. Children eat better when offered familiar foods. They’re okay with eating the same foods frequently. In fact they usually prefer it. This does change as they get older but by this stage I think if they start complaining then the responsibility of making their lunches becomes their own.

Children have children’s tastes. As long as they are given the opportunity to experience different foods their tastes and preferences will develop and they will increase the variety of food that they find acceptable. Some children will eat anything right from the start and others won’t. Having the opportunity to experience different foods may mean offering something slightly different in their lunch box. But it doesn’t mean that the whole lunchbox is a new experience with the belief that because there is no choice the child will have to eat it. This will usually just lead to nothing being eaten.

Priority ranking for children

Children are more concerned about getting out and playing rather than appreciating any gourmet lunch. Children have limited time to eat their food. Whether it be morning tea or lunch time, their goal is to finish as quickly as possible so they can hang out with their friends. Packing their lunchbox full of low calorie foods just means that they have to eat a larger quantity to feel full and satisfied.

Children have small stomachs so they need some fat containing foods to meet their energy requirements for the day. Fat also provides important fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K.

When packing a lunch try to include:

Nutrient Foods that provide the nutrients
Protein Cold meats, cheese, milk, nuts, seeds, beans/lentils, hummus
Carbohydrate Bread, crackers, tortilla, pita, muffins, cakes, biscuits, starchy fruits and vegetables
Fat Milk, dairy, nuts, seeds, cakes, muffins, biscuits, avocado, coconut, salami, cold meats
Dairy Milk, cheese, yoghurt
Fibre, vitamins, minerals Whatever fruit and vegetables your child likes, wholegrain bread

As you can see many of the foods cover more than one nutrient category. Not that I am suggesting you fill the lunchbox with one type of food because it covers multiple categories. Choose something from each nutrient box and you’ll be providing a well-balanced meal.

A snapshot of our family lunch boxes

I have shared what lunch boxes look like in my family. They are nothing flash. I am not saying that these are what you should aspire to. I’m sure there are a lot of lunchboxes that look better than this. What I am saying is that they don’t have to be gourmet and you don’t have to feel bad or guilty about the foods that you provide for your child.

lunch box ideas

My children like plain sandwiches. Options include jam, marmite with margarine, peanut butter. I tend to provide different sandwich fillings as finger foods instead – hence the salami in chunks. I’ll add a whole tomato rather than putting it in a sandwich.

lunch box ideas

I cut up the fruit as I find my children eat more and it also doesn’t fit in the lunch box whole. To stop the apples browning I add a splash of juice. Somethings like kiwifruit don’t keep well when cut so I give them a spoon to scoop it out with.

Hummus in a little container can be a great option for scooping with crackers.

lunch box ideas

My four year old made her own sandwich this day. Even when my children make their own lunch they choose foods similar to what I provide. This tells me that they’re ok with what I give them. Pasta with fettuccine sauce is on the side – leftovers from dinner. Below I have provided the recipe for the perfect hard-boiled egg. They only smell when they’re over cooked.

lunch box ideas

Yes, it is flavoured milk. Yes, I would prefer my children to drink plain milk but they don’t like it so I give them flavoured stuff sometimes. I am more concerned that they get enough calcium rather than their sugar intake.

Yes, it is processed cheese. Because that is what keeps better in the lunch boxes. When we’re at home we all eat the block cheddar cheese but my children don’t like the taste and texture when it is warm after sitting in their lunch boxes all day. Again the calcium and protein in the processed cheese is better than no cheese.

lunch box ideas

Usually I make sandwiches with wholemeal or wholegrain bread and sometimes it’s white. It depends on what we have on the day.

I add chips into the lunch boxes sometimes. This means that they don’t become a forbidden food that they overeat at parties and friend’s homes.

Sometimes I bake, often they have bought biscuits. I have the best of intentions in the weekend of having a baking session but often other things come first like hanging out with my kids, tidying the house, seeing friends and family… usually it ends up being bought biscuits. I’m ok with that and often my kids prefer it – I try not to take it personally.

Do what works for your family

Every family is different in the foods that they find familiar and prefer. There will always be someone who you judge as having better or worse lunches than you provide. Lunches are just one of the meals that make up your child’s total intake. It is important to view the whole day when considering their nutritional needs as well as their food preferences. If you like experimenting with food and your child enjoys the variety then go ahead, enrich your child with the chance to try new things but if you’d rather be doing something else then there are ways to add variety that don’t have to be time consuming. Provide the foods that work for your family and put away the guilt.

Perfect hard-boiled eggs

Add eggs to cold, salted water, bring to the boil, then simmer for 8 minutes, run under cold water immediately. Peel while still warm, the shell comes off easily.

Spiced Sunflower Seeds

½ cup sunflower seeds

½ teaspoon oil

½ teaspoon coriander

¼ teaspoon garam masala

1/8 teaspoon cinnamon

Pinch of salt

Mix all the spices together.

Warm oil in a frypan over a medium heat.

Add seeds and fry for 2 minutes.

Add spices and fry for a further 2 minutes.

Transfer to a plate to cool.

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Andrea has a passion for food and health and has turned her passion into a profession. As a qualified dietitian and chef Andrea wants to help others feel the same way, which is why she started her own business Food Habits based in Lower Hutt. To find out more go to www.foodhabits.co.nz.

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