FOOD

Thinking inside the box: taking the stress out of school lunches

Prepare and portion out lunchbox ingredients in advance. Picture: Shutterstock
Prepare and portion out lunchbox ingredients in advance. Picture: Shutterstock

Over the course of your child's school life, from kindergarten to year 12, it's highly likely you'll make close to 2600 lunchboxes. Multiply that by whatever the number of children you have and it's no wonder school lunches can cause so much angst.

Parents are caught in the vicious cycle of worrying about the nutritional value of the contents of the lunchbox but at the same time expected to "curate" beautiful looking inspirational lunchboxes.

Regardless, at the end of the day, the goal is the same. You just pray your child has eaten it all and it comes home empty.

That reminds me - have you checked the school bag for any leftovers from last year? And no, you can't scrape that banana off the bottom of the backpack and turn it into banana bread.

Dietitian Stacy Morgan is also a mother of four so she understands the pain. Picture: Supplied

Dietitian Stacy Morgan is also a mother of four so she understands the pain. Picture: Supplied

Stacy Morgan is the principal dietitian at Hive Nutrition. She's also a mother of four. While her eldest two have finished school, she still has two children who need lunch every day.

"Lunch boxes can prove a bit of a challenge and my approach has changed over the years depending on my children's ages," Morgan says.

"As we gear up for another school year packed with activities, studies and sport, we need to check in with how we are best preparing our children's bodies.

"Fuelling young brains and bodies with good nutrition plays a major role in children's ability to concentrate and actively participate throughout the school day and beyond."

Morgan is, as is any working parent, realistic about the challenge.

"Lunchboxes don't have to be fancy or take ages to prepare but there are a few things we should consider."

Taking Morgan's sensible advice, my own cynical approach, as well as stealing some ideas from Nutrition Australia, here's some things to think about, when you're thinking inside the box.

Get the kids involved

Children should learn to take some responsibility for their own lunch. Picture: Shutterstock

Children should learn to take some responsibility for their own lunch. Picture: Shutterstock

"Let your kids choose what goes into their lunch box," says Morgan.

"You chose the foods available and they pack their own lunch. This way, kids are able to choose the foods they are most likely to eat trying to avoid a full lunch box coming home at the end of the day."

She says the parent still needs to set the rules for younger children.

"For example, lunch must include one piece of fruit, one treat, one sandwich or wrap or roll or leftovers, one serve of dairy etc."

She says it's important not to overwhelm little ones with too much food, suggesting that small bite-sized options may work well with younger age groups.

With teenagers I've found the challenge is working out the right quantity to fuel them through not only school but hours of co-curricular that can start in the gym at 6am and finish at ballet lessons at 8pm.

I'm no nutritionist but leftovers have been a popular solution. Especially balancing one vegetarian child. Nutrition Australia has a good section on leftovers for lunch with recipes that work just as well the next day. The Cancer Council also has some good suggestions for sandwich alternatives.

Morgan says it's well worth investing in a good reusable container that will keep leftovers warm, or cold, until lunch. Check out the range at thermos.com.au

Parents get too stressed out worrying about "inspo" lunchboxes. Picture: Shutterstock

Parents get too stressed out worrying about "inspo" lunchboxes. Picture: Shutterstock

Prepare ahead

Come this time of the year I'm always on the lookout for lunchbox fillers. Yogurt pouches, particularly the protein enriched ones have become a staple, little tubs of hummus, little triangles of cheese.

Morgan suggests looking at the range of baby-sized fruit and vegetables such as baby cucumbers (qukes), cherry or grape tomatoes, baby carrot snacks.

Or get chopping, buy the odd-bunch range of fruit and vegetables and chop them up and store them as needed.

Morgan also likes to make a stash of trail mix.

"Mix up your favorite mix of popcorn, dried fruit, rice cracker pieces, toasted coconut, muesli or crunchy seeds, a bit of prep can get you through the week."

Another trick is batch cook, says Morgan, an afternoon in the kitchen making mini muffins, fruit loaves such as high-fibre banana bread or raspberry and coconut loaf can get you through a whole term.

"Spend some time on the weekend creating some lunch box treats," she says.

"Get the kids involved, research shows us time and time again that getting your kids involved in choosing and preparing foods not only increases their enjoyment and willingness to try new foods, but also their nutritional understanding.

"When creating your own treats you control how much sugar, fat and salt are present as well as reducing the number of additives and preservatives designed to increase shelf life."

Balance the box

Children will function better throughout the day with a healthy lunch. Picture: Shutterstock

Children will function better throughout the day with a healthy lunch. Picture: Shutterstock

While some days it's just about filling the damn thing with things you know they'll eat, Morgan says it is important to start looking at food labels and know what's in the food you and your children eat.

"There is increasing awareness around fat and sugar content of foods, but have you considered the amount of fibre?" she says.

"There are increasing amounts of processed foods available on supermarket shelves to add to your kid's lunch box, many advertise health claims that end up confusing consumers.

"Through the processing process, the majority of fibre is removed.

"However, increasing fibre helps little tummies feel fuller for longer, reduces constipation and feeds our beneficial gut microbes for a healthy gut."

She suggests swapping out regular flour with wholemeal flour in homemade baked goods, adding seeds such as pepita or sunflower, or a little psyllium husk wheat bran. When looking at packaged goods such as wraps, bread and cereals aim for a minimum 5g fibre per 100g of product.

Waste warrior

Think about using beeswax wraps to reduce waste. Picture: Shutterstock

Think about using beeswax wraps to reduce waste. Picture: Shutterstock

More than 50 per cent of items in school bins comes from packaging at home, according to Nutrition Australia. They suggest swapping cling wrap and zip lock bags for reusable containers and finding a durable drink bottle.

Cynical me is keen to try reusable beeswax wraps but I wonder if a teenage boy would show the same respect. The Canberra Environment Centre occasionally runs workshops on how to make your own. WRAPPA reusable food wraps are available from the Handmade Canberra markets and online.

Morgan says most children are open to a discussion about cutting down on waste, moreso than many adults.

"Spend some time talking to your children about creating environmentally sustainable lunch boxes," she says.

"I was so grateful that from an early age my children's school encouraged a no packaging policy. If you don't already do so, this year try investing in lunch boxes with compartments, some cool individual containers for your homemade snacks or buy in bulk and portion off snacks.

"These small changes will not only help reduce waste, but also help reduce your weekly food bill."

Made with love

Put a little bit of love into every lunchbox, perhaps even a note. Picture: Shutterstock

Put a little bit of love into every lunchbox, perhaps even a note. Picture: Shutterstock

One thing I've always tried to do with the lunch boxes I've made over the years is to include a little bit of homemade love. I love baking, my muffin means I love you. And I've been on an eternal quest to find the most nutritional delicious homemade muesli bar possible. Try the recipes in the breakout and see what you think.

Occasionally too I'll include a little note just to say I love you. Do well in your test today! Enjoy hockey training! Be kind to someone! Sit next to someone new at lunch!

Those were the days. Now it's more likely to read If you forget to bring home your math's textbook one more time I am refusing to cook you dinner!

Good luck with the school year parents!! Pack a little love every day!

Recipes that won't come home from school

Filling a lunchbox five days a week with food that kids will actually eat can be a challenge. No more! This cookbook will help you pack the ultimate kids' lunchbox, with recipes for lunches and snacks that won't come home again at the end of the school day.

Wraps two ways

Wraps two ways - corned beef with Swiss cheese and easy slaw and smoked salmon and cream cheese. Picture: Supplied

Wraps two ways - corned beef with Swiss cheese and easy slaw and smoked salmon and cream cheese. Picture: Supplied

Corned beef, swiss cheese and easy slaw wraps

Ingredients

125g prepacked classic coleslaw mix

1 tsp whole-egg mayonnaise

2 mountain bread wraps

100g sliced corned beef

6 slices Swiss cheese

Method

1. Combine coleslaw and mayonnaise in a bowl. Top each wrap with half the beef and coleslaw mixture; top with cheese.

2. Roll wraps tightly to enclose filling. Cut each wrap crossways into five even pieces, if you like.

Smoked salmon and cream cheese wraps

Ingredients

2 mountain bread wraps

60g spring onion and chive cream cheese spread

100g smoked salmon slices

4 baby gem lettuce leaves, trimmed

Method

1. Spread each wrap with half the cream cheese; top each with half the salmon and lettuce.

2. Roll wraps tightly to enclose filling. Cut each wrap crossways into five even pieces, if you like.

Swap: Use regular cream cheese instead of flavoured cream cheese in the salmon wrap.

Prep: Make wraps in the morning.

Pack: Pack sliced wraps into reusable sandwich containers, or enclose the wraps in baking paper, then foil and cut in half, if preferred. Transport in an insulated lunchbox with an ice pack.

Tip: For older kids, use toothpicks to hold the sliced wrap together.

Makes 4 large wraps or 20 pieces.

Pizza scrolls

Pizza scrolls. Picture: Supplied

Pizza scrolls. Picture: Supplied

Ingredients

2 cups self-raising flour

1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda

1 tsp salt

50g cold butter, chopped coarsely

3/4 cup buttermilk, approximately

2 tbsp pizza sauce

2 tbsp barbecue sauce

1/2 small red onion, sliced thinly

1/2 small green capsicum, sliced thinly

100g sliced pepperoni, chopped coarsely

1/2 cup well-drained pineapple pieces, chopped coarsely (see tip)

1/2 cup drained sliced kalamata olives

1 cup pizza cheese

Method

1. Preheat oven to 200C. Oil a shallow 22cm square cake pan.

2. Sift flour, bicarb and salt into a medium bowl; rub in butter. Make a well in the centre; add buttermilk. Using a knife, cut buttermilk through flour mixture to form a soft, sticky dough; add a little more buttermilk only if needed. Turn dough onto floured surface; knead lightly until smooth. Roll dough out into a 30cm x 40cm rectangle.

3. Spread dough with combined sauces; sprinkle with onion, capsicum, pepperoni, pineapple, olives and half of the cheese. Roll dough tightly from long side. Using a serrated knife, trim ends. Cut roll into nine slices; place scrolls, cut-side up, in oiled pan. Sprinkle with remaining cheese. Bake for 25 minutes or until cooked through.

Swap: For a meat-free version, replace pepperoni with thinly sliced swiss brown mushrooms.

Prep: The scrolls can be made up to two days ahead; store in an airtight container in the fridge. Wrap individual scrolls in plastic wrap and freeze for up to onemonth; defrost as required.

Tip: Drain pineapple then pat dry on paper towels to prevent the pineapple from making the scrolls soggy.

Makes 9 scrolls.

Carrot cake muffins

Carrot cake muffins. Picture: Supplied

Carrot cake muffins. Picture: Supplied

Ingredients

3/4 cup self-raising flour

1/2 cup plain flour

3/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda

cup caster sugar

3/4 tsp ground cinnamon

440g can crushed pineapple, drained well

175g firmly packed grated carrot (see tip)

100ml vegetable oil

1 egg, beaten lightly

Coconut crust:

1 1/2 cups shredded coconut

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 egg, beaten lightly

Method

1. Preheat oven to 180C. Grease a 12-hole muffin pan.

2. Sift flours, bicarb, sugar and cinnamon into a medium bowl; add pineapple and carrot. Whisk oil and egg in a small jug; stir into dry ingredients. Do not over-mix; mixture should be lumpy. Divide mixture between pan holes.

3. Bake muffins for 10 minutes.

4. Meanwhile, make coconut crust.

5. Spoon coconut crust over muffins; return to oven. Bake for a further 15 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the centre of one comes out clean. Stand muffins in pan for five minutes before turning, top-side up, onto a wire rack to cool.

Coconut crust: Combine ingredients in a bowl.

Prep: Muffins can be made up to three days ahead and stored in an airtight container (refrigerate in humid weather), or wrap muffins individually in plastic wrap and freeze for up to three months.

Tip: You will need two medium carrots for this recipe.

Makes 12.

Apple pie muesli bars

Apple pie muesli bars. Picture: Supplied

Apple pie muesli bars. Picture: Supplied

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups puffed rice

1 tbsp white sesame seeds

cup sunflower seeds

1/2 cup pepitas (pumpkin seed kernels)

1/2 cup finely chopped dried apple

1 tsp ground cinnamon

3/4 cup honey

1 tsp vanilla extract

1/2 tsp salt flakes

Method

1. Preheat oven to 150C. Grease a 20cm x 30cm slice pan; line with baking paper, extending the paper 5cm over long sides.

2. Combine rice, seeds, apple and cinnamon in a large bowl.

3. Place honey, vanilla extract and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat; cook, stirring, for two minutes or until mixture just comes to a simmer. Pour honey mixture over dry ingredients; stir through until evenly coated.

4. Transfer mixture to pan; press down firmly with the back of a lightly oiled spoon. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in pan. Cut into 16 bars.

Prep: Muesli bars can be made up to one week ahead and stored in an airtight container in the fridge.

Makes 16.

Recipes from Kids' Lunchbox, Australian Women's Weekly Cookbooks, $5.50.