A frustration for every school parent
By Brooke Penny, Dietitian
Kids go to school for 200 days every year, so for parents and caregivers, this means 200 lunch boxes have to be made! With kids getting up to a third of their daily energy intake at school, the lunch box is an important part of your kids nutrition (Regan, Parnell, Gray, & Wilson, 2008).
However school lunches can be a frustration point for many parents as you try to find a happy medium between what you want your child to be eat vs what they will actually eat. Add to this is the uncertainty around what exactly children should be eating at school to provide the best nutrition. We know that 73.1% of Australian children aged 4-8 years consume adequate fruit while only 3.3% reported an adequate vegetable intake (Mihrshahi et al., 2019). However, the number of serves and portion sizes outlined in the dietary guidelines for children are confusing at the best of times, so trying to figure out how this might look inside a lunch box is challenging.
In an ideal world we would have a freshly made gorgeous healthy instaworthy lunch and the lunchbox would come home empty… but we live in the real world.
So what are some of the barriers we hear from parents to packing a healthy lunch?
1. My kids just wont eat it
A massive hurdle that we hear Perth parents face in creating healthy lunch boxes is the frustration when kids do not eat the healthy food that is packed (Bathgate & Begley, 2011). There is a perception that healthy food is more expensive, it is also less convenient than unhealthy food given that most “healthy” options don’t come already portioned, wrapped and sealed! For this reason, putting in the extra money and time to buy, prepare and pack healthy food when your child wont eat it feels senseless.
Normal childhood feeding issues such as fussy/picky eating can also heavily influence what is eaten and not eaten at school. This can make the task of putting together an lunchbox all the more challenging. We feel you.
2. Food Safety
Food safety; will it stay fresh in the lunchbox? is the bag in the sun? will it make my child sick? will it make another child sick? is on many parents minds when packing lunches(Bathgate & Begley, 2011). High energy snack foods are mostly shelf stable and pose little risk, where-as healthier options such as salads and meats can be more risky. There is also the issue of allergies. The already challenging task of putting together a lunch box becomes that much harder when your child has an intolerance or allergy that is restricting their intake and limiting their options.
3. Media & Friends
We are all influenced by outside factors, our children just as much so, and these can be positive or negative (Bathgate & Begley, 2011). Seeing what their friends eat can go two ways… it can either cause improvements in eating habits, like exposure to new foods, or it may cause you some grief…your bank account suffers or your childs healthy eating does.
The media (TV, Social Media, Billboards, driving past Maccas on the way home from school) also has an influence, advertisement showing unhealthy foods and strategic packaging with fun and bring colours attracts children and skews their preferences.
We have all been there… at 7.30 in the morning opening the fridge and thinking….. Far out what am I going to put in there, we’ve run out of bread/yoghurt/apples…..
Time for planning, shopping and preparing food is one of the biggest hurdles we see in packing healthier options vs packaged snacks (Bathgate & Begley, 2011). If you are like most parents, planning lunchboxes a week in advance isn’t a natural skill.
But what actually happens at lunch and recess time is also a factor in parents deciding what goes into a lunch box. Some schools have a set time for “eating” vs “play” at break times, but some children find that this just isn’t enough – they just want to get playing with their friends (Bathgate & Begley, 2011). This can be yet another barrier to healthy foods as its often the less healthy convenience foods that tend to be eaten quicker.
So what can you do?
Research around the world has been focusing on how to best help parents create healthy lunch boxes and here at WKH we have come up with a few tips of our own.
There are so many resources out there. We know you love pictures and suggestions / ideas, recipes (that include a shopping list!) so that you can develop a greater understanding and variety of nutritious choices. If you would feel like you need some guidance, support or inspiration check out the resources below
- https://healthylunchbox.com.au is fantastic – check it out
- Come to one of our Lunchbox Chats to discuss our lunchbox formula, recipes and more. Give reception a call to find out when the next one is.
- Use our Western Kids Health “Lunch Box Formula” – join our private facebook group for this and other ideas here
2. Get them involved
A key factor in getting your child to eat what is in their lunchbox, is to get them involved in the preparation and / or packing. (Bathgate & Begley, 2011; van der Horst, Ferrage, & Rytz, 2014). Children learn by listening, touching, smelling, tasting – helping out in the kitchen uses all of these senses. When children are included in choosing, shopping for, preparing and cooking foods, it often leads to a greater interest in food. Discussing where the food comes from, how to cook it, what ingredients make up the dish are all important parts of meal prep. Get the conversation started however you can, even watching cooking programs with your children can help them to develop an interest in food! (Folkvord, Anschütz, & Geurts, 2020)
Encouraging your child to help make decisions about what goes in their lunch box can also give them a sense of independence and control over their food. Try simple questions such as what vegetables sticks would you like today? Would you like your chicken in a sandwich or wrap? Shall I cut up your apple or leave it whole? (ask option 1 v 2 rather than overwhelming with many choices)
So to summarise, why get them involved?
- It facilitates choice and control about what goes in – so they are more likely to eat it.
- It improves food knowledge and awareness
- It is allows you time with your child around food, learning about food, without having to eat the food at that very moment (so it can be a nice bonding activity)
3. Planning ahead
I’m not talking about planning out every component a week in advance, I’m a realist. A small amount of meal prep can make all the difference. However it can be difficult:
- with a fussy eater (what they liked last night they dont like today)
- with multiple kids with different preferences
- for working parents
- for parents who don’t do a weekly food shop.
Thanks to Instagram & Pinterest, ‘meal prep’ often conjures the image of a fridge full of containers containing breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks for the entire week. If this is you, well done! For the rest of us, this level of preparation is just not achievable. However, small amounts of prep across the week can make all the difference. This might be as simple as:
- cutting up fruit for 2 days in a row
- doubling your dinner meal for lunch the next day
- keeping emergency muffins, homemade pizzas, or quiches in the freezer
Keeping a shopping list in your notes section on your phone and adding to it as you go, roughly planning the weeks meals will also help ease the pressure at 7:30am.
The most important thing to remember as a parent is that it is your role to offer healthy nutritious foods wherever you can, but it is up to your child to decide whether to eat and how much to eat. Kids need energy to learn and play at school so sometimes compromises have to be made.
Lunch is only one meal of the day, and a lunch box that is accepted by your child that has a few less healthy options is better than the healthier lunch box that comes home full!
Bathgate, K., & Begley, A. (2011). ‘It’s very hard to find what to put in the kid’s lunch’: What Perth parents think about food for school lunch boxes. Nutrition & Dietetics, 68(1), 21-26. doi:10.1111/j.1747-0080.2010.01488.x
Folkvord, F., Anschütz, D., & Geurts, M. (2020). Watching TV Cooking Programs: Effects on Actual Food Intake Among Children. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 52(1), 3-9. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2019.09.016
Mihrshahi, S., Foley, B., Nguyen, B., Gander, K., Tan, N., Hudson, N., . . . Bauman, A. (2019). Evaluation of the Cancer Council NSW Eat It To Beat It Healthy Lunch Box Sessions: A short intervention to promote the intake of fruit and vegetables among families of primary school children in NSW Australia. Health promotion journal of Australia : official journal of Australian Association of Health Promotion Professionals, 30(1), 102-107. doi:10.1002/hpja.23
Regan, A., Parnell, W., Gray, A., & Wilson, N. (2008). New Zealand children’s dietary intakes during school hours. Nutrition & Dietetics, 65(3), 205-210. doi:10.1111/j.1747-0080.2008.00288.x
van der Horst, K., Ferrage, A., & Rytz, A. (2014). Involving children in meal preparation. Effects on food intake. Appetite, 79, 18-24. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appet.2014.03.030