Moms wanting to get their kids off to a healthy start during their developmental years deal with the same dilemma, ‘what should I put in my child’s lunchbox’? And I’m sure many well-researched and well-thought-out meal plans went out the window within the first two weeks of your little one starting daycare or school.
You don’t need to have a degree in child psychology to know your kids’ favourite foods can swing like a pendulum from ‘best in the universe’ one day to ‘most despised’, the next.
By the end of the first quarter, you've probably run out of ideas, inspiration, and motivation. Not to mention the endless negotiations with tears flowing on both sides. As a mom, you may end up feeling like you're failing to provide your toddler with sufficient nutrition to promote healthy, holistic development.
Well, the good news is that through trials, tears, and Google, we now have many moms-turned-foodie specialists and dieticians, nutritionists, and various child nutrition experts in the field of pediatrics; help is at hand.
They all agree on the same approach: mix your child’s old favs with some new healthy options you wish to introduce. The emphasis is on getting ‘buy-in’ from your toddler.
Kids are fascinated by colours, keep the rainbow in mind when you pack your child’s lunchbox.
Unleash that ‘inner chef’ in your toddler by asking them to add their creative ideas and assist with packing the best lunchbox on planet earth. In this way, you know they will also eat what they meticulously helped to prepare.
Who knows, your picky eater may surprise you at the end of the first week by bringing his lunchbox home ….empty!
Stay Within the Five Food Groups.
The Australian Guide to better health suggests selecting at least one portion from each of the five food groups to create a well-balanced diet. Growing kids must eat a healthy variety of foods from the five food groups daily to receive the valuable nutrients, vitamins, and minerals their little bodies need.
Always try to obtain wholegrain cereals or bread, rice, pasta, and noodles that are high in fibre to provide your little one with high-quality nutrition. Be mindful that kids' favourites like biscuits, cakes, and donuts are often high in fat, sodium, and added sugar. The usual culprits that lead to health problems.
Dairy products (or vegan alternatives)
Milk, cheese, yoghurt, and foods in this group provide an excellent source of calcium that's imperative for strong, healthy bone and teeth development. Most of the kids' calcium needs are met through foods in this group.
Fortunately, most kids naturally love fruit that provides essential minerals and vitamins and all-important dietary fibre. Additionally, fruit contains a variety of phytonutrients (plant-based nutrients) that keep kids healthy and glowing.
Much the same as fruit, vegetables are full of vitamins, essential minerals, plant-based nutrients, and dietary fibre. Include some salad vegetables cut into small portions or thin sticks in your child’s lunchbox. They are easy to nibble on during the day. A tiny container of their favourite hummus will make a great ‘dip.'
Lean meats, fish, poultry, eggs, legumes/beans, tofu, nuts and seeds
Protein provides the building blocks for healthy muscles, heart and tissue development, maintenance, and repairs. Our bodies use the protein we eat to make haemoglobin (in the blood) and adrenalin (for energy).
Put a healthy spin on their favourite PB&J
If you had to leave the choice of what goes into their lunchbox, most kids would say, “peanut butter and jelly” (PB&J), without a moment's hesitation. Unfortunately, this classic doesn't give your child the nutritional needs and energy to get through the day without slumping mid-way. Do check the school’s policies regarding nuts and other allergens.
So, we'll put some twists and spins on an old lunchbox favourite and turn it into a ‘gourmet' nutritious surprise. Here are a few ideas to use PB&J creatively.
- Fill a tiny container with peanut butter to serve as a dip for slices of apple, banana, or baby carrots.
- Sandwich two cocoa-flavoured rice cakes or (plain sea salt) popcorn cakes together.
- How about spreading some on a plain or cinnamon-raisin bagel.
- Cut an apple in rounds and spread it on circular apple ‘sandwiches’ sprinkled with cinnamon or cocoa.
- Now, for a gourmet experience – swirl some softened cream cheese over the PB&J before closing the sandwich.
- For extra colour and nutrition, add extra berries in season or other fruit cut into slices or rounds to complement the PB&J sandwiches in your child’s lunchbox and see who gets the vote for ‘best mom.’
Make your Child’s Lunchbox Exciting and Colourful.
Colourful foods will entice your child to eat everything you've packed in their lunchbox and represent a holistic diet to promote overall healthy development and growth. No more boring white refined carbs or leftover brown meatloaf.
Eating a well-balanced diet consisting of all foods in the rainbow allows all the naturally-occurring plant nutrients to work synergistically to promote overall health.
More Creative, Healthy Lunchbox Ideas
- Fruit stewed in their natural juices, muesli (without added sugar), and yoghurt placed in layers (parfait style), topped with fresh berries in a small jar with a lid. Wrap a small amount of dried fruit and a few pieces of cheese separately.
- Wraps – Make these colourful, tasty salad wraps with loads of crunchy veg for texture. Add hummus and cheddar cheese, tuna, roast chicken or boiled egg.
- Star-shaped sandwiches (or other shapes) can be cut out of soft wholemeal bread with a cookie cutter. Fill with your child’s favourite creamy fillings such as avocado hummus and thin slices of cucumber or cream cheese swirled with pesto. A sweeter version can be homemade strawberry or blueberry jelly (no added sugar). Leave sandwiches overnight in the fridge, in cling wrap.
- Crackers, cheeses and dips are always favourites with kids. Introduce your child at home to different types of cheeses so that you get to know their likes. Use cream cheese and yoghurt as a base for dips and mix in fruit or veg from the rainbow.
- Experiment with a variety of breads to keep your child excited about his lunchbox. You can buy or bake your gluten-free fruit loaf or buns made with brown flour (you can omit the nuts if needed), pitta bread, focaccia, scones, and soft bread rolls.
Pack a ‘Brain Healthy’ Lunchbox
Award-winning brain doctor Daniel Amen M.D. and his wife Tana, a New York Times bestselling author on health and fitness, caution that the wrong foods have the potential to shrink the decision-making parts of the brain. This husband and wife team have developed a few easy eating habits to improve mood, energy levels, concentration span and overall brain health.
You can include any combination of brain foods in your child’s lunchbox. If they’re sensitive to wheat, substitute rice or corn cakes or make your own gluten-free bread.
- Quality vs. Quantity – Impulsive eating leads to wrong eating that leads to obesity and harms the brain, especially in a young child. Instead opt for a colourful, nutritious salad made from berries, other fruits, nuts (if your child is not allergic to them), finely cut spinach, red bell peppers, etc.
- Yoghurt and chopped fresh herbs make a healthy salad dressing – This homemade salad dressing constitutes a Low-Glycemic, High-Fiber Carb option that boosts brain health.
- Water, the fountain of life – The human brain consists of 80% water. It is imperative that your toddler (up to 3 years) drinks at least 2 to 4 cups of water per day and at least 5 cups from 4 to 8 years.
- Good Fats – If our brain is 60 percent fat (when the water is drained), it makes sense to eat good fats such as Omega-3 fatty acids. Excellent sources are sardines, salmon, canned tuna, avocados, walnuts, chia and flax seeds.
- Antioxidants – Blueberries, blackberries, red sweet bell peppers, pomegranates, prunes, plums, and beets keep the brain alert and youthful. They are great additions to your child’s lunchbox either on its own or in a small salad.
- Spice up brain health – Various spices are proven to boost brain health and improve conditions such as ADHD in children and adults, according to Dr Amen. Some of these include Cinnamon, Rosemary, Thyme, etc. (refer to the FAQ section).
- Food sensitivities – Dr Amen cautions that some kids may be sensitive to wheat, soy, and dairy products. This can interfere with their ability to focus and worsen ADHD symptoms.
If your child suffers from food sensitivity, an allergen test will show a negative result. Dr Amen, therefore suggests that parents keep a close eye on how their kids react after eating certain foods. Eliminate them one at a time from their diet for at least 4 to 5 days to see if their mood and concentration improves.
How To Keep Lunches Fresh and Safe in a Lunchbox.
In most cases, the food you've packed in your child’s lunchbox has to last through breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snacks. The lunchbox should keep the food cool and separated even if the childcare has a fridge.
The following tips will help to avoid the possibility of food poisoning.
- Adhere to basic kitchen hygiene principles. Wash hands, chopping boards, and all required utensils with warm soapy water and dried properly.
- Take extra care with meats, cheeses, fish, eggs, pasta, yoghurt, and milk or milk products, constantly checking use-by dates.
- Most working parents prepare lunch boxes the night before. Make sure you immediately place it in the fridge below 41°F (5°C) overnight.
- It's advisable that the lunchbox is insulated and has a freezer pack. A small bottle of frozen water can help keep the food fresh and prevent harmful bacteria from developing. This water bottle can then double up as an ice cold drink later in the day.
- Warm food like soups or lentil stews should be cool before storing in the fridge. Heat it in the morning and store it in a kiddies' thermos flask. This way it will be warm at lunchtime – even if the school has a microwave.
- There is no shortage of brands and styles of kiddies' lunchboxes on the market. Buy one that is insulated and large enough to store an ice pack or a bottle of ice water. Most importantly, it must be easy to clean and dry corners.
How to Ensure your Child Eats their Packed Lunch
- Most young children regard play more critical and urgent than food. In this case, ‘simplicity is genius,’ when it comes to packing your child’s lunchbox.
- Food must be easy to handle – ‘little finger food’ – and small containers should be simple and easy to open (do test runs at home). Include eating utensils and wet wipes or serviettes.
- Use cookie cutters to form fresh bread into different shapes. Whole slices should be thin and cut into squares.
- Don't overdo the sandwich fillings; it becomes messy and runs down the sides.
- Black and green grapes, strawberries, blueberries (in small containers) are colourful, super healthy, and easy to pop into their little mouths when time is of the essence! Be sure to slice grapes length ways to reduce chances of choking.
- Cut larger fruits such as watermelon, sweet melon, and oranges into bite-sized pieces and put into a container or on skewers.
- Buy medium-sized apples so that your toddler can bite into them. Dentists recommend it because it's good for gum and teeth development.
- Avoid anything that will be messy or cause sandwiches to become soggy – drain liquid well from canned fruit, tuna, etc. Instead opt for small reusable containers.
Yummy Recipes for your Toddlers’ Lunchbox
There are hundreds of recipes and food combinations for young kids floating in cyberspace. The recipes below are specially selected as they are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. It’s never been easier to know what to pack into your child’s lunchbox with these homemade recipes and ideas.
Always try to pack your child's lunchbox with foods that are familiar. It's great to have healthy food discussions through analogies (something they can relate to) so that when you surprise your child with something new in their lunchbox, they know that it's to build health and, therefore, it's good!
However, it may take a while for your little one to adapt in a new environment. Don't expect them to eat the same amount at first until he’s more comfortable and settled in. Check their lunchbox and see what they haven’t eaten so you can discuss it with them. Incorporate the equivalent of the nutritional value into the evening dinner.
Remember to check if the new nursery school has allergy guidelines and whether they allow foods containing nuts or other known food allergens.
Why is my child not eating his packed lunch?
Kids between the ages of 2 and 5 years are unpredictable eaters, and what they love today during family dinner may taste ‘yucky‘ at school two days later. According to Sarah Remmer, a pediatric dietician and nutritionist, it only takes a few minor adjustments to correct the situation.
- She warns against micro-managing your child’s eating patterns as it could only make a stressful situation even worse.
- Your child may feel pressured. Even though it may be unintentional on the part of a parent, kids can sense a parent’s anxiety and may resist eating at some point.
- Kids love to be involved and included in things that pertain to them. Before you pack your child’s lunchbox, ask him to assist with the planning and preparations. You will know not to pack too much, cut the portions smaller, or leave out foods that become soggy.
- Kids quickly get bored with the same food combinations even though they may not tell you. Sometimes they may genuinely not be hungry, or perhaps they’re too tired or don’t feel well. But before including new foods in your child’s lunchbox, you should first discuss it with them to get buy-in.
- Kids love to play, get easily distracted, and may actually ‘forget’ to eat.
- Including too much milk or water for school may be detrimental as your child may be full after finishing a 250 ml cup of milk.
Are herbs and spices healthy for my toddler?
There seems to be no limit to the herbs and spices you can add to your child's diet. Brain Doctor Dr Daniel Amen believes some of them are so powerful they should rather be kept in the medicine cabinet instead of the kitchen pantry!
- Rosemary, Sage, and Thyme are known to boost memory;
- Turmeric is known for its anti-inflammatory properties and aids digestion;
- Oregano is a powerhouse of antioxidants; it contains four times more than blueberries and increases blood flow to the brain;
- Mint soothes indigestion and is an excellent palate cleanser;
- Cinnamon is also packed with antioxidants, boosts mood and attention span, and fights bacterial infections;
- Ginger aids digestion and is excellent at fighting infections caused by colds and ‘flu;
- Saffron extract is an effective antidepressant and on par with some prescription medications.