How to create a healthy school lunch box
IT'S that time of year again when we start to prepare the kids for going back to school and that, of course, means school lunches.
While finding foods to fill the lunch box may seem like a chore or even a downright pain with the growing restrictions placed by schools on what is and isn't acceptable, it has never been more important, says acclaimed childhood psychologist Michael Carr-Gregg.
"We have to get kids to eat healthily not just for physiology but psychology," he says.
"Professor Felice Jacka from the Food and Mood Centre at Deakin University studied the relationship between what young people were eating and their psychology and found that eating junk foods increases the likelihood of psychological problems and can also impact on parts of the brain associated with memory and learning."
Carr-Gregg says there is increasing evidence that what we eat affects our cognitive capacity as well as our gut biome and our gut biome can affect our mood in relation to anxiety and depression.
"In my clinical practice now when a child presents with anxiety or depression, the very first thing I do is inquire into diet," he says, revealing that only 18 per cent of teenagers eat sufficient fruit and vegetables, while every three out of four teens exceed their daily sugar intake.
"We need to move people off convenience fast food and into these health foods."
So impassioned to do this and improve the mental state of Aussie kids, Carr-Gregg has teamed up with food guru and mum Flip Shelton to create the new book Smart Snacks, with more than 100 mood-boosting food recipes for kids and teens, out February 5 ($24.99, Penguin).
"The whole purpose of Smart Snacks is that when they open the fridge door, we want them to snack on healthy foods and not eat the crap," he says.
"It's not too big of a bow to draw to say that (through this book) we will increase their cognitive capacity, concentration and mood, and reduce the likelihood of depression and anxiety."
Carr-Gregg wants to get kids eating healthily for their brains and suggests getting the kids involved in the cooking process.
"We know if you get kids involved in the preparation they're more interested in what they're eating and it also provides the opportunity to open up the conversation about healthy eating," he says.
In the book you'll find recipes for perfect lunch box fillers like sandwiches, slices, energy balls, dips and even chips, with many gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free or nut-free to fit those tight school allergy requirements.
As you wait for the book's release, though, Brisbane mother-of-four and founder of the Oh So Busy Mum blog Cheree Lawrence has more tips on filling the lunch box.
GIVE KIDS CHOICE
"For me, you've got to choose items that your children will eat," says Lawrence. "That means involving kids in the shopping process."
While this may sound like a fresh level of hell for many parents, Lawrence says it's actually a great educational opportunity.
"If they've chosen something you don't think is appropriate then you can talk them through a healthier option," she says.
The process can also be done around the computer with online shopping to make things easier.
GET KIDS INVOLVED
Sick of getting the lunch box back half eaten at the end of the day? Then get kids involved in packing it, says Lawrence.
"I always try to involve the children with packing it because they're not going to put something in there they don't like," she says.
She also recommends having the kids help make their lunches so it gives them ownership of the food and they're more inclined to eat it.
THE HUMBLE SANGA
It's been a lunch box mainstay for generations and with good reason - they're easy to prepare, cheap and kids will generally eat them.
Lawrence sticks usually to Vegemite in her house as it won't go off in the lunch box in Queensland's scorching heat and recommends preparing them ahead of time.
"I'll make them and put them in the freezer and then by lunch time they're defrosted and ready to go," she says.
"But I wouldn't make them more than a week ahead or they can sometimes get a freezer taste through them."
While sandwiches are great, Lawrence says homemade sausage rolls made with mince, herbs, spices and blitzed up vegetables are another terrific option that can be frozen and left to defrost in the lunch box.
She also likes making mini quiches using flattened out bread as the pastry crust and filling them with cheese and bacon or ham and vegetables.
Mini pizzas are another easy option, Lawrence suggests, using half an English muffin topped with tomato paste, cheese, ham and whatever veg your kids will eat.
"They're a perfect size for them to eat, it's easy and the kids can even help make them," she says.
Wraps are also an easy twist on the sandwich, while zucchini slices, frittatas and bakes are another simple dish that can be made in bulk and sliced up into smaller, child-friendly portions.
FRUIT AND VEG PLEDGE
Fruit and vegetables are a perfect lunch box filler providing kids with the nutrients they need as well as being cost effective.
Lawrence is a fan of cutting up celery, cucumber and carrots into sticks to be dunked into cream cheese or a dip she'll buy on special at the supermarket and divide into individual containers.
She also recommends cherry tomatoes and the children's sized packs of fruit from Woolworths for $2.50.
"They're smaller than normal fruit so they're the perfect size for them which means they're not wasting a whole banana or apple and it fits in the lunch box perfectly," she says.
Once a week or a fortnight Lawrence recommends doing a big bake and making double quantities of banana bread, muffins, cakes or slices, with one lot kept fresh and the other going into the freezer.
She says changing the flavours up each time keeps kids from getting bored.
Finding healthy snacks at the supermarket can sometimes be difficult, but Lawrence says she's found some she loves. She recommends the 10-pack of gluten-free popcorn, vanilla yoghurt pouches, Macro lentil bites and Macro quinoa puffs all from Woolworths.
"I'll also go to Woolies at night and see things in the bakery section that are marked down and then I'll got home and cut them into servings and freeze them," she says.
Lawrence says almost anything for a school lunch can be frozen and it's become a life saver in her house.
"I'm a big fan of mixing up the lunch box and that's why having stuff in the freezer makes it so easy to mix it up," she says.
She says sweet or savoury baked goods will generally freeze for up to three months, but she usually gets through hers every four weeks.
While prepackaged lunch box treats might be a tempting time saver, Lawrence says they can end up expensive if you're not careful.
Instead, she recommends buying the bento box-style lunch boxes with the individual compartments and that way you can buy the cheaper bulk packet at the supermarket and create individual portion sizes without the need for the excess packaging or the excess costs.
She says making baked goods from scratch or buying them on special is another great way to save, but her biggest tip is to plan ahead.
"Plan out your grocery list, plan out how many lunches you need to make and exactly what you need to buy. It stops impulse buying or buying things that are going to go to waste," she says.
By following these simple steps Lawrence says she can feed her four children lunch every day for as little as $30.
Getting kids out the door of a morning can be a challenge for any parent, so Lawrence recommends getting the lunch box ready the night before.
"That way you're not rushing around and it's so much easier and faster," she says.
She also recommends making food in double batches - whether that be those mini quiches or cakes - to save hours later.
But even before sending the kids off to school with lunch, Carr-Gregg says it's imperative they eat breakfast, with almost a third of kids going without their morning meal.
"The biggest problem is kids aren't getting breakfast or enough sleep and you combine those things together and you get kids who can't learn," he says.
For children who don't like breakfast, Carr-Gregg recommends one of the smoothies from his book like the Choconana with bananas, cacao, medjool dates and nuts.
"We know the sole source of energy for the brain comes from glucose and that comes from carbohydrates so we've created recipes that will fuel their brains and set them up for the school day," he says.
MICHAEL CARR-GREGG'S TOP 4 BRAIN FOODS
1. Eggs - They are a marvellous memory food. They contain a micronutrient known as choline which is vital for neurotransmitters to work properly. They are great hard-boiled for lunch boxes
2. Blueberries - The brain loves blueberries and they'll improve your memory
3. Greek yoghurt - It's a great stress-busting food
4. Nuts (particularly walnuts) - They're very high in Omega-3 and your brain thrives on that for energy and its health