Stuck on what to pack in your child's school lunchbox? Here are nutritious and affordable options

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"Children have high energy needs, and so they need to ensure they consume nutrient-rich balanced meals and snacks". (Getty Images)
"Children have high energy needs, and so they need to ensure they consume nutrient-rich balanced meals and snacks". (Getty Images)

The recent announcement that children would be returning to school full-time has been a long time coming. 

Yet getting back to the regular school routine might be a tough adjustment for many children and their parents. 

One way to ease the transition is to ensure your child gets enough of the essential nutrients they need to make it through their new schedules. 

According to dietitian and spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), Zelda Ackerman, understanding your school-going child's nutritional needs is key to making informed decisions about your child's ideal daily diet

Here, both Ackerman and fellow dietitian and ADSA spokesperson, Vanessa Clarke, shares top tips for parents on healthy food choices for school-going kids. 

Also see: Want your child to have a healthy start to 2022? Here are some fruity lunch box ideas 

Breakfast bests

"Children have high energy needs, and so they need to ensure they consume nutrient-rich balanced meals and snacks," says Clarke, who suggests that an excellent place to start is, of course, breakfast, even on the go. 

According to Clarke, good breakfast options include foods like: 

  • Wholewheat toast
  • Oats
  • Granola 
  • Eggs 
  • Cheese
  • Yoghurt 
  • Avocado
  • Nut Butters

Ackerman recommends homemade carrot, banana, nut or raisins muffins as an alternate and affordable breakfast food option. 

"Children may also require increasing amounts of certain vitamins and minerals as they get older," says Clarke, particularly children with more physically demanding schedules, she says. 

Clarke recommends vitamins A and D, calcium, zinc, folate, and iron as essential aids to development for children of all ages. 

"Calcium acts to support the rapid bone growth in children while zinc is involved or acts a precursor in a number of biological functions related to growth and energy in children's bodies," Clarke says. 

Lunchbox essentials

Clarke suggests whole foods high in fibre instead of highly processed foods when packing a lunchbox. Ackerman agrees, advising parents to keep refined starches and sugars out of the lunchbox. 

"This may help to keep blood sugar stable, which is important for concentration," Ackerman says. 

"Choosing a high fibre option ensures they stay fuller for longer and have a more sustained level of energy," Clarke says, suggesting wholewheat bread, wholewheat wrap, high fibre crackers or high-fibre bread as great options. 

In addition to high fibre options, Clarke's says to include a serving of fruit, a portion of vegetables and protein, as well as a bottle of water to your child's lunchbox. 

"Homemade popcorn is a good snack option to pack in a school lunch box in addition to fresh fruit and vegetables," Ackerman recommends. 

Clarke recommends adjusting portions on longer and more active school days. 

"Older children participating in sports may also need an extra wholewheat sandwich and additional lean protein portions to help preserve lean muscle mass". 

Also see: These 5 food tips will help your studying teen stay in top form 

Performance boosting foods 

Ackerman recommends eating fish twice a week to boost mental and physical performance since it contains the beneficial and "much-needed omega 3 fatty acids that the brain needs for optimal function". 

For an affordable option, Ackerman suggests tinned mackerel or middle cut. 

"At about R30 per tin, it is the most affordable source of omega 3. One tin of mackerel contains the same amount of omega 3 as more than 20 tins of tuna". 

Since fish and fish products can be pretty smelly, Ackerman says to keep these out of the lunch box and preserve them for home consumption instead. 

For the physically active child, Ackerman suggests easily digestible carbohydrates such as fruit preferably eaten 1 hour before a practise or game to boost energy levels. 

"This should be preceded by a meal 3-4 hours before the event, that consist of minimally processed grains with a low-fat protein, like a low GI wholewheat sandwich with chicken, tuna or hummus on," the dietician says. 

Don't miss: Smart tips from a dietician, and real moms, to get your picky eater interested in food again

Food pitfalls 

Like any parent to a picky eater can attest, getting a fussy child to eat nutritious meals can be stressful. 

As a solution, Clarke says family mealtime will go a long way.

"Science has shown us that when parents eat together with their children and all members of the family eat the same meal or similar food, it reduces the incidence of picky eating. Children learn by example, so focusing on creating happy, healthy mealtimes together is key in addressing picky eating". 

Additionally, persistence and exposure is another way to circumvent '"fussy eating tendencies," the dietician says. 

"It can take 15-20 times for a child to accept a new food, and so parents should keep exposing their children to healthier foods and try to limit force-feeding and bribing children to eat healthier foods". 

Overall, Ackerman suggests that parents take the show instead of tell approach when talking healthy eating. 

"When parents eat healthy food at home and buy healthy food, children are likely to follow. In-depth scientific explanations are not needed... Modelling is the best way to educate children about choosing healthy food. This can happen at home and even when shopping". 

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