Are packed lunches healthy? They certainly can be, but research from Leeds University has suggested that only 1% children’s lunchboxes currently meet the nutritional standards that school dinners have to meet. The research, commissioned by the Government, has found that parents are choosing foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar to put in children’s lunchboxes, placing them at risk of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes. These anti-nutrients are now limited in school dinners, thanks largely to Jamie Oliver’s campaigns.
Although Ofsted has recommended a policy on packed lunches, there is no legislative imperative for them to comply with the nutritional standards that are applied to school dinners. Many parents report that their children will not eat the healthy choices that they offer in lunchboxes and, as a result, only one in five packed lunches contained any salad or vegetables and half included a piece of fruit.
Packed lunches can be a highly nutritious alternative to school dinners. Much can be done to improve their nutrient status with some ingenious preparation of fruit and vegetables and by adding popular protein foods for brain development and growth. Protein can be included from homemade chicken nuggets, mini burgers or grilled tofu saved from last night’s dinner. Although nuts are discouraged from schools, cheese strings (natural cheese, like mozzarella that has been cured into an elastic strip) or individual cheese portions can boost the protein content of a lunchbox. Encourage children to eat fruit and salad with cheese strings to provide potassium to balance their salt intake.
Sandwiches can be stuffed with tuna, egg or cheese with tomatoes, cucumber or lettuce can boost the vitamin and mineral content – start with tiny amounts to allow children to get used to the look, taste and texture and increase slowly.
Some children will enjoy cherry tomatoes, olives, lettuce, slices of pepper, cucumber and carrots in their lunchboxes, alongside apples, pears, bananas and oranges. Inflatable fruit bags can prevent bruising of fruit on the way to school and allow for easy identification in the snack tray.
Reluctant children may need more encouragement to eat their fruit and veg; have fun with preparation and presentation. Natalie Savona suggests turning mangoes into hedgehogs, oranges into dragons and skewering red and white grapes onto sticks. For dessert, if fruit does not satisfy alone, strawberries can be half dipped in melted chocolate the night before and allowed to set overnight.
Nutritious food can improve children’s health and happinness. It can also enhance attention, learning, behaviour and physical ability. By providing children who take a packed lunch to school with high quality protein, fruit and vegetables and omitting foods high in saturated fat and sugar, these benefits may be seen in the classroom. If healthy lunchboxes become the norm, children will be happy to eat the same nutritious food as their peers.
Many children will eat chunks or strips of chicken breast or boneless chicken thigh that have been baked in a moderately hot oven (200°C/400°F/Gas 6) for 15 mins or until the meat is cooked through. Those children that are partial to a golden crisp coating may enjoy Patrick Holford and Fiona McDonald Joyce’s gluten free battered nuggets:
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced into strips (about 4 strips each)
200g (7oz) instant pre-cooked polenta flour
210ml (7floz) water
4 eggs, beaten
2 tsp onion salt or sea salt
4 tbspn sesame seeds (optional)
Preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas 6. Line a baking tray with greaseproof paper.
Mix together all the batter ingredients in a bowl until smooth. Drop the chicken pieces (one at a time) into the batter and turn over to coat evenly. Place on the baking tray and cook for 15 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through (cut a piece in half and check that the flesh and juices are not pink).
500g (1lb 2oz) lamb mince
1 very small red onion, finely chopped
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp ground coriander
1 tsp sea salt
2 tbspn finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
a little coconut oil, for frying
Mix together all the ingredients until well combined. Roll into 6-8 balls (or more for mini burgers) and flatten
Grill or fry in a little coconut oil for 15-20 minutes, turning halfway, until both sides are coloured and the burgers are cooked through.
These recipes are taken from ‘Smart Food for Smart Kids’ by Patrick Holford and Fiona McDonald Joyce.
To make a mango hedgehog, slice down each side of a mango from top to bottom, close to the stone, so you have two ‘almost halves’ with a middle slice clinging to the stone (you may find that the children fight over who gets this bit!). Cut across the flesh of each mango half in parallel lines, carefully so as not to cut through the skin. Now cut across these lines in the same way, so you have criss-crossed flesh with the skin intact. Turn the skin in on itself so you have a mound of spikes to decorate with raisins for eyes and a nose.
To make an orange dragon, lay an orange on a board with the stalk and base facing to the sides. Using a sharp knife, cut the orange asross the segments into generous rounds. Then, take a slice and at a point between two segments, carefully cut through the skin and as far as the centre of the slice. Carefully prise open the slice, seperating the little triangular segments: you end up with a flat line of orange skin with a series of little triangles poking out from it – the dragon fins. Repeat with the other slices. This is much easier to do than to describe in words – so give it a go and you’ll find your children will be keener to eat the oranges than if they’d had to peel them in the usual way.
These ideas are taken from ‘Wonderfoods for kids’ by Natalie Savona