For every child you have who completes Year 12, you will have made some 2600 school lunches. Little wonder then, when you utter the dreaded words “school lunches” to parents you see the eyes roll, the shoulders drop, and a deep sigh escaping. Along with sleep deprivation, exasperation at school lunches seems to be one of parenthood’s universally defining characteristics.
My son started school two weeks ago and I have been steeling myself for this experience. We did have to make his lunch for kinder (preschool in other states) during school holidays last year so I’ve had some limited exposure to the trials and tribulations of making four meals before 8 am and somehow getting yourself ready for work and all out the door by 8.30. I know I’m not the first parent to arrive at work feeling like they’ve already put in a full day’s toil. In fact, if you see a parent in your workplace who has got a child off to school that morning, they have made it to work by 9.30, their hair is combed, and they don’t have food stains on their clothes, high five them. If they are a single parent, use two hands.
One thing I am quickly realising is that when it comes to school lunches, you can never get enough new ideas. So here are some of mine, as well as some advice and tips from a few school lunch veterans who have been kind enough to submit. Thanks Lorena and Charlie for their input!
And please – I would love to hear from other parents with their tips, ideas and suggestions. After all, there’s about 2,592 to go…
Lorena is in her 9th year of making school lunches for her son and daughter. A full time working mum, Lorena rides out the frustrations of this fraught daily ritual with great humour. Here are her tips.
1. If your child wants the same thing every day, just make it. My darling son has been eating the same sandwich, off and on, since kindergarten.
2. In summer, freeze the drink bottle to halfway, and fill it up in the morning. By lunch time it will have thawed and be nice and cold.
3. Before kindy (or prep) starts, let your child practice to make sure they can actually open the lunch box, have worked out the mysteries of glad wrap and/or how to open – and close – containers. Label everything. Have spares of everything. Be prepared to sift through lost property and possibly contract a disease while doing so.
4. Before they are too grown up to find you embarassing, you can leave them love notes. Or a sticker for eating all their fruit.
5. Make sure containers don’t leak. Not easy to do, as a not-fully-closed-but-half-consumed lunchbox can render a school bag a bit grotty at the end of the day, especially in summer.
6. Carrots can be cut up in a multitude of ways – sticks, stars, wheels … so can celery. Sweetcorn. Dips of every kind.
7. Freeze yoghurt. Even in winter.
8. Encourage them to unpack their bag EVERY day. Talk about their lunch - how long it took to eat, or what they did and didn’t like. A not-eaten lunch is not the end of the world but can be a sign that other things are going on.
9. Hommous solves everything. As do organic corn chips, tahini, rice wheels and home-made muffins.
10. Baked beans (especially home made) are a very healthy option. Buy napisan, however.
My sister Charlie has been making school lunches for her four children for most of her life. She’s passionate about nutrition, and goes to great lengths to make very healthy lunches for her kids. As one of her children has a reaction to chemicals, just about everything is organic. She avoids food with any artificial colours, flavours or preservative, which her kids call “bad numbers”.
A lot of canteens with the healthy tick really aren’t that healthy. I make things like smoked chicken & caesar dressing, and other salad bowls. You have the luxury of doing that now because of ice packs and cooler bags. I stick to one juice per day, an appple or pear that is not acidic. Cloudy juices are best. Sandwiches – avocado with lemon, cucumber and lettuce on wholemeal. Squeeze the seeds out of tomatoes.
- Natural cheese sticks;
- gluten free rice bread or wraps;
- boiled eggs which are great nourishment;
- organic popcorn in the airblower seasoned with organic Herbamare seasoning;
- carrot/celery/capsicum sticks (boil the carrots a little so they are soft and easy to digest); organic sultanas are great;
- Rice Wheels sold in supermarkets have no artificial anything.
The Abbotsford Kitchen
I have limited experience so far in making a school lunch day in day out, so I am mindful that some of my suggestions may, once the 5 day a week routine settles in to a grinding reality, be a little idealistic. But there is nothing wrong with aspiring for the best school lunch we can manage.
For me, there are two important things about school lunch. And the first is breakfast. A child who goes off to school in the morning well fed will learn and play better, and be hungrier in a good way by lunch time.
The second thing is nutrition. A balanced morning snack and lunchbox is so important to the attention and energy levels children will have throughout the day. I aim to make every lunch box item as nutritious as it can possibly be. But treats are important too, and I always pack a little piece of dark chocolate, or some of my healthy chocolate slice.
Here are some of my lunchbox ideas and recipes that I have practiced over the last year at kinder, and on summer holidays when packing lunches for pool and beach visits.
1. The No-Spill Roll
I came up with this idea of a hollowed out roll filled with sandwich filling in order to stop the contents ending up on your child’s lap, or the floor. It’s simple and effective and great for school lunches.
Step 1: Take a round bread roll (preferably wholegrain), and cut the top off, not halfway through, but close to the top, leaving most of the roll on the bottom.
Step 2: With a small serrated knife, cut a circle out of the middle and scoop out the inside. Discard the inside (I use this for breadcrumbs).
Step 3: Fill with sandwich filling of your choice. This one has chopped barbecued chicken breast, avocado, lemon juice and chopped salad leaves. Put the lid on, press down a bit and wrap. You can also cut some of the bread off the corners if you think you have more bun than your child will eat.
2. Savoury Muffins
Muffins are one of those many foods – along with mashed potatoes, pasta, rice, polenta – that I see as carrier foods, in other words, food that acts as a vehicle to deliver nutrition to your child. For example – mixing chopped cooked broccoli into mashed potato. A savoury muffin can be an entire meal packaged in something that appeals to children.
Take any basic savoury muffin menu off the internet (but where there is plain flour substitute it for wholemeal), and add whatever vegies, herbs and cheese your child will tolerate. I like these combinations:
- red capsicum, corn kernels, coriander, fetta cheese
- spinach, tasty cheese, shallots and dill
- sweet potato, goat cheese and basil
- cherry tomatoes, garlic, parsley, parmesan
- zucchini, mint, shallots, fetta
I keep mine vegetarian, as there is usually no problem getting kids to eat meat. I am not big on]ham for children’s lunches – it is full of salt and preservatives and there is little in the way of nutritional value.
4. Chocolate Date and Blueberry Slice
Dates are a great way to give kids a healthy and nutritious energy boost and the chocolate flavour makes it appealing. My son would not eat a date if you gave him one, but the secret is to finely chop them. This slice has no sugar other than what is in the dark chocolate, and is butter free, so it’s very nutritious as well as yummy.
- 1 cup quick oats (I use organic wholegrain quick oats)
- 1 cup pitted dates, finely chopped
- 3 tablespoons dried blueberries (use currants if you can’t find blueberries)
- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
- 1/4 cup hot water
- 60 grams 70% dark chocolate, plus extra for grating
- 1 tablespoon rice malt syrup or honey
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1/3 cup sunflower seeds, ground in a food processor or pestle and mortar
Preheat oven to 180 c. Put the oats, dates, and sunflower seeds in a bowl. Mix the cocoa powder in the hot water and add to the bowl. Heat the chocolate with the honey/rice malt syrup in the microwave until the chocolate is melted. Add to the bowl and mix to combine well. Press into a small, oiled shallow baking dish and bake for 25 minutes. Cool, refrigerate for a few hours and slice.
5. Sandwiches – Thinking Outside the Square
Here are some ideas to help break out of the ham, cheese and vegemite mould.
- roast pumpkin, hummous, avocado, cheese, lettuce;
- salmon, thinly sliced celery, crushed walnuts, mayonnaise;
- chopped chicken, avocado, lettuce;
- tuna, egg, mayonnaise, lettuce;
- mashed white beans with tuna and avocado;
- cheese with lettuce, grated carrot, tomato with the seeds squeezed out; avocado
- cream cheese and olive paste
- goat cheese and pesto
Instead of butter and margarine, try some of these as spreads:
- avocado and lemon juice
- roast pumpkin
- light cream cheese
- goat cheese
I like to put combinations of these spreads on “roly poly sandwiches” pictured above, which my son loves because they are different. Cut off the crust of a piece of bread, slice in half, spread, roll up and hold with a toothpick.