1 February 2016
With the start of another school year upon us, parents are preparing themselves for the constant task of making lunch boxes.
Many parents feel pressure to include superfoods in the lunch box, which can be costly and impractical, especially if their child doesn’t like them! Yet while superfoods are hyped everywhere as being essential items, nutritionally they are not that different to other fruit and vegetables.
For many families, just getting something into a lunch box is super enough.
Australian children are going hungry more frequently than you or I would like to believe. In 2013, 15 per cent of Australian children went to school without breakfast. And almost one in 10 children will not eat for an entire day on a regular basis.
Hunger in children has numerous psychological and behavioural consequences, and can have a lifelong impact on learning. Children who skip meals are more likely to be overweight, have a lower intake of fruit and vegetables, and can be more inactive.
There is also a lot of social stigma attached to what does (or doesn’t) go in the lunch box.
Children can be embarrassed as they are seen as different; parents too are embarrassed when schools do not understand their situation, leading to children staying home from school.
Teachers must often negotiate the minefield of school lunches; it’s a tricky task when what is in the lunchbox may be the culmination of complex factors including food insecurity, socioeconomic and cultural factors and family dynamics.
Teachers are called on to inspire health in their students and implement policies that do not consider all of these complexities.
Super school lunches can be achieved not by the addition of a quinoa salad with blueberries and kale, but with simple core foods such as bread, fruit, vegetables, dairy and meat, fish or egg.
A lunch box consisting of a Vegemite sandwich on brown bread, a banana, biscuits and cheese, and a carrot (in the context of some meat or fish at dinner), while not as glamorous or apparently super, can fulfil a child’s nutritional needs at school and keep them energetic and alert.
What super lunches do need is both preparation and planning.
The myriad of snack foods in supermarkets are confusing as many are labelled as healthy choices but in fact contain large amount of sugar, salt or fat and have minimal fibre.
Supposedly healthy choices can also result in inadvertent but significant boosts to daily calorie intake. For example, a large smoothie (while a better choice) can contain as many calories as a Big Mac.
Other considerations when packing a lunch box are ease and speed of eating. Young kids in particular are keen to get out to the playground and won’t appreciate the time it takes to eat large salads or chia seed puddings.
Food safety is also important as hot Australian summers will turn your beautiful chicken or green smoothie into something very unpalatable (and potentially dangerous) by lunchtime. An ice brick in the lunch box will help, but some foods just aren’t good to send in the lunch box over summer.
If you are able to provide a nutritious breakfast each morning, send a lunch box with mostly non-processed fresh foods to school. Provide a snack and an evening meal along similar lines, and you are doing a super job.
Evelyn Volders is a Senior Lecturer/Course Convenor in Nutrition and Dietetics at Monash University
Zoe Davidson is a Lecturer / Research Dietitian, Monash University
This article has appeared in The Conversation.