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Healthy lunch ideas for kids

Healthy lunch ideas for kids - a Nutritionist's guide to packing a healthy lunchbox.

We all want what is best for our kids and to do everything in our power to enable them to be healthy and happy.  Ensuring your child has a nutritious, balanced diet is a great place to start, as the nutritional intake of children greatly influences both their health and happiness.

Approximately one third of a child’s daily food intake occurs at school, which illustrates just how important the contents and associated nutritional value of school lunchboxes are.

As the nutritional intake of children has the ability to impact on both their health and happiness, it is safe to say food can either work for or against our little ones. The right foods can positively impact on practically every aspect of a child’s life. A nutritious diet is associated with improved cognitive ability and overall academic performance, as well as higher fluid intelligence. Children’s nutritional intake is also linked to how effectively their immune system functions, their mental health status and general behaviour, including their ability to socialize and interact with others.

By making simple and smart food choices for your tiny tot, you are giving them the greatest chance for health and happiness.

Unfortunately, it is not always clear what actually constitutes a healthy, balanced diet and even if you do have a sound understanding of nutrition, there is no guarantee your tiny-tot will eat what you give them (can I get an “Amen sista!”) It can also feel as though you don’t have the time or the creative inspiration to prepare healthy lunchbox options. So how does one tackle the seemingly impossible feat of packing a lunchbox that will leave our growing youth healthy and happy?

Healthy lunch ideas for kids will most likely vary across children and families, as we are all beautifully unique, however you may find the following five considerations helpful when you are next on “lunchbox duty”.

Be  prepared. Healthy lunch ideas for kids. Clean + Conscious
Healthy lunch ideas for kids: Try preparing veggie sticks (such as carrots, celery, cucumber) and storing them in a water filled, airtight jar in the fridge.

1. Be prepared

Get organised for the week ahead by stocking up on groceries and essentials over the weekend. Preparing what you can in advance will save you time and stress in the long run. A great example of this is preparing veggie sticks (such as carrots, celery, cucumber) and storing them in a water filled, airtight jar in the fridge. Not only does this keep the veggies fresh for longer, it also provides a wonderfully quick and nutritious snack to use consistently in lunchboxes.

If you are feeling adventurous, you could also bake some healthy muffins (e.g., include vegetables and exclude refined sugar) or allergy friendly bliss balls for a fun addition to your healthy lunchbox.

2. Nutritional Balance

A balanced nutritional diet will assist in boosting and sustaining children’s energy levels, regulating their emotions, and supporting cognitive function (e.g. concentration, memory) throughout the school day. Aim to provide your munchkins food from all five of the major food groups (see below) that have been established and agreed upon by nutritional experts.

Fruit: provides vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants to protect against disease. Focus on fresh fruits, rather than canned alternatives as these often contain preservatives and added sugar. Dried fruits (e.g., raisins or dates) are alright in small amounts, although can negatively impact on tooth health if consumed frequently and in excess.

Vegetables and legumes: provides vitamins, minerals, and fibre for overall body health. Focus on colourful fresh veggies, rather than canned or fried versions (e.g. hot chips). Legumes such as green peas and chickpeas are also a valuable part of this food group. Healthy lunch ideas for kids include a few snap peas and some falafels or hummus to have with veggie sticks or seed crackers.

Grains: provides fibre for digestive health and sustained fullness. Utilise wholegrain options such as wholegrain breads, brown rice, corn and whole wheat pastas, rather than white grains (e.g., white bread, rice, and pasta) which are heavily processed and nutrient poor. These examples are simple and filling additions to any healthy lunchbox.

Protein: provides protein, vitamins, and minerals for muscle and organ health. There is a wide range of beneficial protein options available such as tofu, legumes, seeds, chicken, and eggs. Avoid highly processed protein foods (e.g., ham, hotdogs) as these can contain additives such as sugars, preservatives, and chemicals.

Dairy / dairy alternatives: provides calcium and vitamin D for bone and teeth health. Stick to low-fat dairy products (e.g., cheddar cheese) and/ or calcium-fortified (e.g., coconut yoghurt) or calcium rich (e.g., tofu, seeds, seaweed, dark leafy greens, broccoli) alternatives wherever possible.

Variety is key. Healthy lunch ideas for kids. Clean + Conscious
Healthy lunch ideas for kids: Mix things up! Utilise foods that vary in flavour, texture, colour, smell, and even temperature.

3. Variety is key

Mix things up! Utilise foods that vary in flavour, texture, colour, smell, and even temperature. Providing variety will keep your child interested, encourage them to try new things, and will optimise their overall health through exposure to a broad variety of different nutrients.  A great approach to achieving this is to encourage kids to “eat a rainbow” every day. (Each colour grouping of fruits and veggies have their own set of unique, disease fighting antioxidants.)

When selecting fruit and veggies focus on what is in season as these food items will be fresher, possess greater nutritional value and have the added advantage of being cheaper.

4. The conscious approach

Consider choosing organic produce where possible as there are clear benefits from both a health and an environmental standpoint. From a health perspective, organic food is thought to be a wonderful option (if available to you) as there is little to no pesticides found on the food items and their nutritional value is thought to be greater than their non-organic counterparts.  From an environmental perspective, organic food production considers environmental and social impacts by eliminating the use of synthetic inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides and preservatives.

Using reusable, plastic-free lunchboxes and cutlery ensures the food items are not being contaminated by the toxins found in plastic and that we are being kind to our precious environment. We at Clean + Conscious love to pack our children’s lunches in stainless steel containers, silicone and fabric reusable containers and wraps and reusable sandwich bags. Check out our favourite Kids Mealtime products.

Healthy lunch ideas for kids: Using reusable, plastic-free lunchboxes and cutlery ensures the food items are not being contaminated by the toxins found in plastic and that we are being kind to our precious environment.

5. Keep it fun and interesting

We want to encourage our children to be healthy, but also to have a healthy relationship with food. We can do this by demonstrating that food is fun and interesting, as well as the fuel our brains and bodies need for everything we do.

Involve your quick little learners in selecting the fruits and veggies they will be taking to school that week or in making a batch of healthy, allergy-friendly baked goods (e.g., nut-free muesli bars).  Licking the spoon and bowl afterwards is mandatory of course!

Where possible, talk to your tots about the benefits of certain foods to reinforce the importance of having them in our diet. For example “Oranges will help protect you from getting sick, because they contain Vitamin C”. Kids love to learn, so let us teach them.

If there is one main thought I will leave you with though, it is lead by example.  Choose healthy food options, involve your little ones with the buying and preparing of food, keep things interesting, make kind and conscious decisions that benefit our youth and environment, and finally try to enjoy the process. Food can and should be fun!

Healthy lunch ideas for kids – tips

  • Be allergy aware by refraining from including nuts, and products containing nuts (e.g., nut bars) in lunchboxes. Approximately 3 in every 100 Australian children have potentially life-threatening nut allergies.
  • Ensure food items are packed considerately and separated when necessary. For example, to prevent crunchy foods (e.g., crackers, popcorn) going soggy store them away from soft foods (e.g., fruit, veggies). Also, pack fruit separately as many fruits (especially when sliced) tend to release juice over time, which can compromise the flavour and texture of other food items.
  • Food wraps are a wonderful way of separating foods in a healthy lunchbox, as well as keeping foods (e.g., a sandwich) fresh and intact.
  • Limit the amount of highly processed foods your child has access to. There are only negative health outcomes associated with the intake of excess sugar, salts, fats and preservatives. Fresh is best!
  • Ensure clean drinking water is available at all times as this influences a child’s cognitive abilities such as attention and memory.
  • References
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  • Gómez-Pinilla, F. (2008). Brain foods: The effects of nutrients on brain function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(7), 568-578. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2805706
  • Burrows, T., Goldman, S., Pursey, K., Lim, R. (2017) Is there an association between dietary intake and academic achievement: a systematic review. J Hum Nutr Diet. 30, 117– 140 doi: 10.1111/jhn.12407. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/jhn.12407
  • Lam LF, Lawlis TR. Feeding the brain – The effects of micronutrient interventions on cognitive performance among school-aged children: A systematic review of randomized controlled trials. Clin Nutr. 2017 Aug;36(4):1007-1014. doi: 10.1016/j.clnu.2016.06.013. Epub 2016 Jun 23. PMID: 27395329.
  • Childs, C.E.; Calder, P.C.; Miles, E.A. Diet and Immune Function. Nutrients 2019, 11, 1933. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu11081933
  • Jacka FN, et al. Associations between diet quality and depressed mood in adolescents: results from the Australian Healthy Neighbourhoods Study. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2010 May;44(5):435-42. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20397785
  • Jacka FN, Kremer PJ, Berk M, de Silva-Sanigorski AM, Moodie M, Leslie ER, et al. (2011) A Prospective Study of Diet Quality and Mental Health in Adolescents. PLoS ONE 6(9): e24805. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0024805
  • Health Direct (2021). Nut Allergies. Available at: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/nut-allergies
  • Benton D, Burgess N. The effect of the consumption of water on the memory and attention of children. Appetite. 2009;53:143–146.
  • Edmonds CJ, Burford D. Should children drink more water? The effects of drinking water on cognition in children. Appetite. 2009;52:776–779.
  • Nutrition Australia. Are colours of vegetables and fruits important to our health? Available at: https://nutritionaustralia.org/fact-sheets/eat-a-rainbow-2/#Are-colours-of-vegetables-and-fruits-important-to-health?
  • Reganold JP, Wachter JM. Organic agriculture in the twenty-first century. Nat Plants. 2016 Feb 3;2:15221. doi: 10.1038/nplants.2015.221. PMID: 27249193.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization or the United Nations. What are the environmental benefits of organic agriculture? Available at: https://www.fao.org/organicag/oa-faq/oa-faq6/en/
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