Healthy Packed Lunch

What does a child friendly packed lunch look like?

I delivered a healthy packed lunch talk at a preschool recently and thought it would be useful to share the content more widely.

The first half of the talk focused on the 4 food groups that need to be included in a healthy packed lunch, namely:

  • Carbohydrates
  • Fat (animal and plant)
  • Protein
  • Vitamins & minerals (calcium in most lunches pleases)

Please see the grid below (the exact one I presented) which details each of the food groups, why our children need them and some example foods from each group.

A helpful way to remember the four groups is: Child (c for carbohydrate), Friendly (f for fat), Packed (p for protein) Lunch (l for lots of vitamins & minerals):

Child Friendly Packed Lunch Grid

A Real Life Example

The second part of the session involved me running through a typical lunch I’d make for my daughter Lexi. As I went through the menu I ticked off each of the food groups in the grid, to demonstrate how the example lunch met all the nutritional requirements. (see the ticks in the grid above).

Lexi’s lunch menu:

  • A cheddar cheese sandwich on buttered (not margarine, proper butter) spelt bread with beetroot, rocket, avocado, basil, olive oil and organic mayo
    • Ticks: Carbohydrate, Fat, Protein, Vitamins & Minerals
    • Alternatives include pasta with a home made vegetable sauce, oatcakes with hummus and salad or a deli style lunch with breadsticks, tomato and salami
  • Hummus with cucumber sticks
    • Ticks: Protein, Fat, Vitamins & Minerals
    • An alternative could be chick peas in a pot with cubes of feta cheese
  • Half an egg
    • Ticks: Protein & Fat
    • An alternative could be some sliced free range chicken
  • Natural yoghurt with summer fruits, English honey and a teaspoon of ground seed mix
    • Ticks: Fat, Protein, Vitamins & Minerals
    • An alternative could be raisins, cubed cheddar and apple

Treats

The one thing I haven’t covered in the above checklist is ‘treats’. Everyone has a different take on these, and the way you approach them very much depends on the child. It’s really important to include treats in your child’s diet for a number of reasons:

  • It’s important for their social development and psychological wellbeing to eat treats along with their friends and not feel excluded from this
  • Treats have an important cultural place (a piece of cake with nanny) and, when they aren’t abused, bring happiness and create positive memories
  • Treats teach your children about balance and help them build a positive relationship with food, free from both gluttony and self-denial
  • Completely depriving children of shiny packets makes them obsess over them and they will be inclined to go overboard at friend’s houses or when they are old enough to buy their own

My advice would not be to include a treat every day, as then it becomes expected and more ‘norm’ than ‘treat’. Perhaps include them once a week – on a Friday, for example. Also, try not to only use the word ‘treat’ to describe something unhealthy – isn’t a filet steak as much of a treat as a piece of cake? Or what about a jar of local honey? Use the word to describe more ‘luxury’ items as a way of signalling that they need to appreciate this food just as much as a piece of chocolate or an ice cream.

How to Make the Transition

During the talk, one of the mums posed a very good question:

‘If your children have always eaten healthy foods, such as natural yoghurt, then this advice is probably easier to follow. What’s your advice to mums whose children eat a very different? Where do they start?’

A really good question which has spurred me on to put together a list of transition tips. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it hopefully makes a good starting point:

  • Change the way you eat as a family
    • Children are far more likely to eat their healthy packed lunch if it reflects the food they eat at home, and that includes the food that mum and dad eat
  • Make this new way of eating the norm
    • A certain amount of pain is inevitable. If you make changes too slowly their taste buds will still hanker after the old foods which will challenge success
  • Cut out any negative dialogue
    • Don’t talk about your children’s eating habits in front of them. It makes the whole subject a big deal and if you describe your little ones as a ‘nightmare’ with food, then that’s exactly what they will be. Give them only encouragement, expect the best but don’t be deterred or give negative commentary when/if they don’t deliver
  • Don’t be deterred
    • If your child comes home with most of their lunch still left in the lunchbox please don’t be disheartened, just prepare an alternative for the next day and then revisit these options the following week
  • Avoid processed food marketed as “healthy” kids food
    • The more your children expect their food to come in neat little packages the more fussy they are likely to be.  The odd packet of mini breadsticks or raisins is fine but please don’t fill your cupboards with these foods as it encourages them to obsess over the presentation of food and become quite demanding about it (e.g. ‘she won’t eat fruit unless I make it into the shape of a flower on her plate’).
  • Work as a team
    • Change is a lot easier when parents are all on the same page. As I’ve discovered, trying to get your child to accept left over falafel for lunch when the child next to them is eating chocolate spread sandwiches is a battle not easily won.

If you’d like any more help with how to create a healthy packed lunch or how to transition a more challenging child, then do not hesitate to get in touch via the contacts page on my website, or Facebook/Instagram (Hayley Frances Nutrition). I regularly post pictures of our family meals so please follow me if you feel you need some inspiration.

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