Back to the grind of school days and one of the things that I’m least looking forward to is the monotony of the lunch box. Every morning, when I’m just barely awake, I’ve turned the kitchen bench in to an assembly line of snacks and sandwiches- and the anxiety I feel is one of both time pressure, and the pressure of creating something that I will be happy with nutritionally, that they’ll ACTUALLY eat. Nothing makes my blood boil worse than unpacking a lunch box at the end of the day and putting the food I got up early and stressed out over, in to the compost. In fact I’ve implored the kids to PLEASE throw away your uneaten food at school, so that I never have to see it again.
Out of 21 meals a week- 5 will be spent at school- where your kids will be lured in to the playground and may not be able to focus entirely on your lovingly prepared lunch. 5 meals a week, you won’t be able to tell them they have to sit there until they eat their vegetables. You won’t be able to negotiate with them or offer rewards if they have 2 more bites. They will have a half hour tops, they will be distracted and if the contents of their tupperware fail to excite, they’ll be off to the playground and that’ll be the end of it. So what are we to do? How can we sneak nutritionally rich food in to their away from home meals that they’ll ACTUALLY eat? Darned if I have all the answers, it’s bloody hard work and frustrating. I have been at this for 7 years now, and I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve I can share. There won’t be recipes in this post- just tips, but I’ll try to build up a resource of lunch box recipes in the future.
Each kid has their own quirks
Suggestions are helpful, but you will have your own journey figuring out what works for your kid. Depending on when your family started a whole foods lifestyle (it could be this very second) you may have varying degrees of success straight off. Your lunch box kinda reflects the way you eat at home. So the more work you can do making nutrition part of your food culture right from the very earliest introduction to food as a baby- the easier it’ll be at school. If your kid has been till this point raised on white bread and vegemite and not drinking the saurkraut juice out of the jar and eating chia pudding- well, you may have a bit of a harder time initially, and the transition may be slow. If you’ve got small kids just beginning school- the best plan is to start them with a robust palate and a diverse lunch box. They don’t know any different and so they are less likely to argue. A kid who has had raw veggies since day one is less likely to scoff at a box of snow peas and cherry tomatoes.
PROOF! You can have a kid that enjoys sauerkraut for breakfast- Oscar has been eating this way since day dot, and has an advanced palate. Your kid may not be as adventurous, but don’t despair…
It is possible that your kid won’t embrace the pinterest perfect, mum-of-the-year lunch no matter what. Remember that it’s just 5 out of 21 meals. You still have a lot of opportunity to influence the other 16. Don’t set yourself up for tears- work with your kids likes and give in a little. Better that they have calories to fuel their brains then none at all. Try one new thing at a time, and slowly build your repertoire.
Preparation is key- I always try to make Sunday my prep day for the weeks lunch boxes. This usually involves some kind of baking. Getting the kids involved in this can be both rewarding quality time but also helps them to feel empowered with the decision of what they want to eat that week, and builds their confidence in the kitchen. If you are time poor- and baking once a week is a stretch- try baking once every 2 weeks. It’s actually no more work to mix a double batch of cookies/muffins and you can freeze the batter/dough for the next week, or for a week you run out of time. Double batches are a good way to time save.
Of course baking your own allows you to be in control of the amount/source of sugar that goes in, and to sneak a few healthy ingredients they won’t notice. Here’s where compromise comes in. My kids are less than enthusiastic with doughy sugar free paleo blobs. I’ve had some limited success with coconut flour muffins, and if I have any hope at all – they better have chocolate chips in there. But if they are sweetened with coconut sugar or apple sauce and have no processed carbohydrate in them, can I concede defeat with a sprinkle of choc chips? Sure I can. I may even put a little sprinkle of coconut sugar on the top too so that it goes all caramelized and yum.
If you want to mix it up- also remember things like “balls” and home made muesli bars, of which there are million recipes out there. Nut free is usually the tricky part to adhere to.
Covert ingredients- How awesome is carrot cake? Zucchini muffins? A totally legit vegetable in a dessert. That is some gold right there. Branch out though too… don’t forget the Chocolate/beet root combo (using densely nutritious raw cocoa of course- check out this awesome recipe! ) and the sweet potato/pumpkin options for muffins/scones too.
Everything I bake has chia seeds hiding inside. I usually have some soaked for smooties, and I just add a big tablespoon or 2 of the chia “jelly” to the mixture. Seeds are generally ok for most schools these days (nuts are out, which totally sucks). If your kid is open to whole seeds in their baked good, go crazy- sunflower, pepita, sesame, flax. Also, you can try to reduce the processed carbohydrate by using ½ coconut/buckwheat/quinoa flour to your other flour of choice (if these aren’t already your flour of choice). This will also increase the protein of the baked good and reduce it’s impact on blood sugars (reducing the energy crash for the second half of the lesson day).
Shapes matter– If you want to get your kid to eat raw veggies and fruit in their lunch and you suspect they may be resistant, try experimenting with shapes and widths etc. My kid won’t eat an apple unless it’s cut up. She’ll eat celery if it’s sliced lengthways in to strips that make the stringy-ness less… stringy. There are kinds of slicers and cutters out there that make flowers and stars out of things- see what works for your kid without being too time consuming for you.
Borrowed this photo from Alphamom.com – this post has some cute shape ideas. However if going to the trouble of fancy shapes isn’t your style, you may still find that veggies in smaller bites and thinner slices are more likely to be eaten.
Containers are helpful- Aside from being good for the environment and reducing waste, packing your own stuff in containers is more economical. A good container can also make the job of eating easier for your kid. I know it sounds weird, but take this example. If I pack carrot sticks and hummus in 2 separate containers – The hummus comes back every time. If I use a nifty container with a little separate dip section- it’s wiped clean. Also I get mine to eat a variety of vegetables (not just carrots- but also cucumber, celery, snow peas) with dips. They’re tastier with dip- duh.
I will also often portion out my own yoghurt in to small little boxes. Prepackaged yoghurts, even at the expensive end, are either low-fat (which I’m not in to- especially for kids) or have sugar. Finding an organic, full fat sugar free yogurt in a prepackaged container is near impossible. It’s easier to buy your own in the jumbo 1 kg tub and add raw honey, fresh/dried fruit, soaked chia seeds, raw cocoa, cinnamon/vanilla etc…
Those same little boxes good for yoghurt are also good for making things like puddings (chia, sago, rice, avocado) and homemade jelly. I’ve written about the health benefits of grass fed gelatine on the immune system and gut health here before. Good quality gelatine can be a bit tricky to get your hands on. Here and here are good sources to buy it on line in Australia. If you get excited about gelatine, you can also get in to making fruit lollies with it and all kinds of other super fun things.
Puddings and jelly are a good Sunday prep to do while you defrost the second half of your previous muffin batch and whack it in the oven. You’re feeling like a super parent this week.
This very uninteresting picture is of some of my favourite lunch boxes. The nifty ones for veggies and dips- the small square ones that seal completely shut and won’t leak yogurt or jelly, and assorted kinds for crackers, dried fruit and other bits and pieces.
Mix it up- I had an alternating PBJ with cheese whiz sandwich situation every day of my primary school years. I hate sandwiches and bread generally, which makes it really hard for me to make them every day for my kids to eat. They want sandwiches though. Partly because they like them, but also because that’s what everyone else is eating- so there’s that compromise again. Luckily mine will accept spelt sourdough but definitely prefer fluffier lighter options- and I do try to source wheat free/gluten free sandwiches breads from time to time. My daughter will do wraps instead of bread, but not my son (just to make things a bit annoying). I also try to mix up the “main” of the lunchbox with non sandwich options that I know that they like. Sushi- is a fav. I try to sneak ¼ quinoa into the sushi rice. Smoked salmon, avo and cucumber always get a good reception. Leftovers- On occasion when we’ve had a pasta dish, or a home made pie/quiche- the kids will accept these. I wouldn’t send them with a thermos of soup – I just know that wouldn’t get a look in, but your kids might be different. Ricepaper rolls- Traditional Vietnamese cold rolls is another way to sneak in a few extra veggies- just make sure to leave out the peanuts. Fritters and falafel- Some kids love homemade corn/zucchini fritters, bean/lentil patties, veggie burger patties and falafels. Theses can be served as a snack or made in to a wrap/sandwich with salads/pickles and dips.
Carbohydrate vs. protein- Lunch box fare is generally carbohydrate based, which always stresses me out. Sandwiches, muffins, cookies, crackers, fruit. Try to find ways to sneak in protein wherever you can to keep those energy levels stable. Mine love jerky and salami- I try to source as good as quality as possible, and on occasion we make our own. Small boxes of goat feta and olives seems to be well received as a snack. Some kids will do a hard boiled egg. Always add seeds, coconut/buckwheat/quinoa flours to as much baking as you can- as these are seeds not grains and are higher in protein. If your kids will do my raw cereal as a “cookie”, perfect! If it’s sandwiches your kids are after, try to always make your sandwiches savoury and protein based, and avoid sweet ones like jam, honey etc. We do leftover roast chicken with homemade mayo and diced celery, free range ham/salami/BLT, hummus & salad, smoked salmon and avocado.
Drinks- It’s important to limit the amount of juice and flavoured milk. I’d actually say, abstain all together. Mine may get juice as a special treat on an excursion or sporting day- that’s it. Boxed juices offer no nutritional value- they are highly processed and nothing more than a straight sugar hit. On the other hand, if you’re a super parent who wants to put your homemade fresh juice or kombucha in to a container to send to school- and your super kid will drink it there… WIN! Smoothies can also be sources of protein (seeds, good quality protein powder, raw egg, yoghurt) and can be bottled for the lunch box. Smoothies can also hide leafy greens, especially when made chocolate with raw cocoa, I’ve got a smoothie post here.
Breakfast is important- So if lunch is going to be a place of compromise- best make sure that another 5 meals a week are top quality. Protein rich is the best for breakfast. We do lots of eggs (at least 3 times a week) and in winter there may be miso soup made with bone broth, and in summer always a smoothie full of seeds, greens and super foods. Also consider omelettes (a good place to hide veggies), baked beans (home made is best, but if it’s out of a tin, you can sneak in mushrooms, tomato and spinach). On toast think: good quality labna, quark or ricotta with a drizzle of honey, nuts and seeds. If you’re an oats family- try mixing rolled quinoa in to your oats and make sure to add soaked chia seeds, high quality protein powder and nuts. Sorry, but avoid all breakfast cereal. No matter what it says on the box it’s highly processed and a direct sugar hit/energy crash for your kid. If the “best” cereal/granola in the universe fits in anywhere, I’d say it’s as an afternoon snack or desert/treat. Definitely not breakfast.
However your lunchbox goes out, above all, try to avoid it going out soaked in your guilt, stress or tears. There’s a lot of packed lunches ahead before they’ll be making their own, and at the end of the day, a full stomach and a heart full of love is what we’re the most grateful for- just do your best!