The routine of packing a healthy lunchbox for your child every day can feel like an enormous task, especially if you have a fussy eater in the house. The truth is, healthy eating is important for children’s development, both physically and mentally. By filling your little one’s lunchbox with the right foods, you’re helping him reach his full potential.
But supermarket shelves are brimming with ‘so-called healthy’, convenience and pre-packed foods aimed at kids, which might not be nutritious after all. So what’s really so bad about that wholewheat bran muffin or fruit-flavoured yoghurt? We ask the experts.
Healthy lunchbox swaps
Flavoured yoghurts and yoghurt drinks
While research has shown that a flavoured dairy drink is more nutritious and healthier than a sweetened fizzy drink, neither one is a good choice for your child’s lunchbox, says Johannesburg-based dietician, Abigail Courtenay.
“The problem with sweetened foods and drinks is that the more you have, the more you can tolerate. So, the idea is to get your kids off ‘sweetness’ by offering plain, unsweetened items more frequently. Don’t let your kids think that a sweet drink is the ‘norm’ or a reward,” she says. Wellness expert and nutritionist, Desi Horsman agrees. “Fruit yoghurts also tend to be high in added sugar -with no real fruit at all, which compromises the overall nutritional benefit. This potentially healthy snack becomes a treat similar to ice cream, because it’s made up of artificial flavours, colours and sweeteners,” she says.
Sweeten unflavoured yoghurts by making your own fruit purees, which aren’t loaded with preservatives or extra colourants.
For example, start by peeling and boiling apples, then blend until smooth in a food processor. Mix some puree into the yoghurt, or if you’re short on time, add a dash of honey instead.
Energy or cereal bars
Most of us include these in our children’s lunchboxes as they’re quick and easy and it must be better than a chocolate, right? “The sad reality is that most of the time these cereal bars are laden with sugar, oil, salt and preservatives much like that of traditional chocolate bars,” says Abigail.
Next time you have 20 minutes to spare, why not make these power packed oat bars instead?
They’re lower in sugar than the average cereal bar and full of healthy seeds, fruit and oats.
Dried fruit sticks
Dried fruit can definitely make up a part of a healthy diet for kids, says Abigail. After all, it’s quick, convenient and tasty. The key, however, is portion control. This is because dried fruit is much higher in sugar than fresh fruit. “Imagine each raisin is a grape and try to keep the portions to the same quantity of fresh fruit you’d normally give your child as a snack. For example, five strips of dried mango or 1 tbsp raisins are more than enough,” says Abigail. It’s also important to ensure you’re including plain dried fruit in your child’s lunchbox and not the sugar-coated or candied kind.
Rather choose a piece of fresh fruit that’s easy to eat or mixed raw vegetables.
Cold meats are preserved through various methods such as smoking, curing, salting or with additional chemical preservatives like nitrates, explains Abigail.
“Plus, many varieties of deli meats (and biltong such as dried wors) are a combination of unhealthy meat offcuts, which have been blended together and then flavoured and coloured,” adds Desi. So as “healthy” as they may look on the shelf, the current recommendation is to eat as little as possible.
Replace with a wholewheat sandwich with cottage cheese and avocado, or tuna with homemade mayonnaise. Boiled eggs and fresh rotisserie chicken are also good protein sources and less processed than deli meats.
Biscuits or shop-bought muffins
These treats are often the masters of disguise, says Abigail. Muffins and biscuits are often marketed as “health” foods, when in fact, they contain high amounts of sugars such as corn syrup and maltodextrin, plus colourants and preservatives. Filling your child’s lunchbox with foods like these on a regular basis may also contribute to sugar spikes and dips, making it difficult to concentrate and learn for long periods of time. Want to stick to healthier options? Steer clear of anything that contains more than five ingredients on the packaging. And if the first two or three ingredients are sugars, avoid it all together.
Make your own muffins and biscuits. This way you’ll always know what’s in them. Bake a batch of these wheat-free blueberry yoghurt muffins on a Sunday and you’ll put a smile on your kid’s faces all week!
Packaged juices must be healthy if they come from fruit, right? Wrong, says Desi. Most juices are nothing more than flavoured sugar water, which may not have any actual fruit in them and instead are just a series of artificial flavourants. Some of the worst culprits are the box juices you often see conveniently packed into lunchboxes.
“The fact is, even 100% fruit juice isn’t a good idea for little ones because all the fibre has been taken out and all that is left from the fruit is the sugar. This will inevitably cause blood sugar spikes and lows, which can lead to concentration and behavioural difficulties,” she explains. Not to mention tooth decay at a later stage too!
Water is still best. Flavour your children’s water with pieces of fresh fruit such as apple and strawberry, sprigs of mint or fresh lemon.
Tammy is a wife, mom and freelance writer with 15 years’ experience in the media industry. She specialises in general lifestyle topics related to health, wellness and parenting. Tammy has a passion for fitness and the great outdoors. If she’s not running around after her daughter, you’ll find her off the beaten track, running, hiking or riding her bike.