Healthy lunches for healthy learning

In association with Caprice

The food you choose to put in your children's lunchboxes can greatly influence their chances of a healthy life.

Food habits start in infancy. Children learn about food mainly from their parents and other adults in their lives. Other influences are their peers and television.

Starting them off with a good variety of nourishing foods is important from the start because balanced nutritious eating habits will give them a healthy attitude to food

Developing good food habits simply means eating a wide variety of foods, in the correct amounts, to ensure they get all the energy and vitality they need.

Lunch should provide one third of a child's daily food requirements. It is a good idea to get your children to help prepare their school lunches. The more stirring, mixing and assembling they do, the less likely the lunch will end up in the bin or being traded for a friend's chocolate bar.

Experts say ideally your children's lunchbox should contain items from the main four groups - fruit and vegetables, meat, milk and cereal/potato. To ensure these are met, try to include a choice from each food group in the lunchbox.

The best way to choose a balanced lunch is to use the food pyramid as a guide. Choose at least one food serving from the second, third and fourth shelves of the pyramid and two servings from the bottom shelf. Choose from the top shelf no more than two to three times a week.

Bottom shelf.

This shelf is packed with energy giving options. Select from sliced bread, rolls, baps, bagels, baguettes and pitta pockets for tasty sandwiches. Wholemeal breads make the healthiest and most filling sandwiches. Fruit scones or fruit loaves are good to offer as a sweet treat. Many children also enjoy wholemeal crackers and pasta/rice salads. Remember variety is the key.

Second shelf.

Try apples and oranges, mandarins, bananas, pears, grapes, or strawberries. To add a little fun add melon balls or pineapples rings. Vary it every day. Fruit can be chopped up into yoghurt or incorporated into treats, such as carrot cake, banana bread, apple and rhurbarb pie. Or they could try dried fruit, such as apricots or raisins.

On a cold day there is nothing nicer than hot soup, eg, potato and leek or carrot and parsnip, tomator, vegetable, etc. Or aim to include salad vegetables in sandwiches and rolls. Children love crunchy textures so try carrot sticks or other raw vegetables with dips or dried fruit. Tomatoes, peppers, sweetcorn, pineapple chunks, beetroot, and onion/chives/scallions

Unsweetened fruit juice is another way to incorporate fruit into the diet.

Third shelf.

For healthy bones and teeth select from cartons of milk, milkshakes, yoghurts, individual cheese portions, and yoghurt drinks.

Fourth shelf.

To make tasty sandwich fillings include lean meat, fish, poultry, salmon, tuna, sardines and eggs. Vary the filling on a daily basis. Try adding peas/beans e.g. kidney/butter beans to rice and pasta salad.

Top shelf.

This shelf features foods high in farts and sugar and should be eaten occasionally. This includes cakes, biscuits, sweets, chocolates and crisps. It is OK to include these foods as occasional treats when the overall balance of the foods from the other shelves is right. Try to choose funsize treats and small portions of these foods so that children do not fill up on them and neglect other more nutritious foods.

Helpful hints for parents

• Remember to vary the contents of your children's lunchboxes every day to prevent boredom and to expose them to a wide variety of tastes. Let them help you to make the right choices for life.

• Children should drink milk and yoghurt drinks because these provide calcium to help build strong bones and teeth.

• Suitable snacks include pieces of fresh fruit, for example, an apple, orange, banana, pear, peach, plum or kiwi.

• Plan school lunches and buy sufficient food for a few days.

• Prepare the school lunches the night before

• Have a separate lunch box for each child

• Store in plastic lunchboxes or wrap in plastic bag or tin foil.

• Theme your lunchbox on a different country, eg, Italian - try a pasta salad.

• Use a small bag to hold sliced fruit and raw vegetables

• Vary the content, texture, and colour of the lunch regularly to develop taste buds and sensations and avoid boredom

• Give water as a drink and eliminate fizzy drinks.

• Variety is the key to nutritious eating.

• Remember healthy lunches will provide children with nutrients to help the body grow and develop and will aid concentration and learning

• If you want to change your children's eating habits do so gradually. Start by substituting sweets/crisps/biscuits with a piece of fruit and build on your success.

• Children like foods which are colourful and interesting so try to make them look as interesting as possible.

• Teenagers should be encouraged to eat more fresh fruit, vegetables, pulses and wholegrains to increase their fibre levels. They should limit salt intake and foods that contain nitrates, such as processed meats.

• Children can enjoy a small number of treats, such a small chocolate bar or biscuit. Alternatively, choose a treat that belongs in the other shelves, such as a yoghurt drink, banana, crunchy raw vegetable or sugar free popcorn.

• Try making sandwiches into different shapes and sizes, such as triangles and fingers and serve small portions for young children.

• Vary the type of bread used on a regular basis to keep your children interested in eating lunch. Use baps, burger buns, brack, wholemeal and rye breads, rolls, baguettes, crackers and rice cakes.

Healthy eating guidelines

Enjoy your food

Eat a variety of different foods

Do not eat too much fat

Do not eat sugary foods very often

What to use as a filling?

Diced lean bacon/rasher with lettuce and tomato

Chopped hard boiled eggs with cottage cheese and curry powder, low fat mayonnaise with finely chopped parsley and onion

Lean sliced beef, lamb, pork, ham with salad

Sliced chicken or turkey with tomato, salad or sweetcorn

Tinned tuna or salmon with cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes and onion

Grated cheese, diced scallions and paprika

Try pickled onions as garnishes for older people.

Ideal snacks to eat at home

• Fresh fruit

• Dried or tinned fruit in natural juice

• Fresh fruit salad

• Low sugar jelly and tinned fruit

• Yoghurt or fromage frais with slices of fruit

• Fruit scone, currant bun, fruit malt loaf, or a plain biscuit

• Homemade fruit pie, crumble, tea brack, banana bread, or carrot cake

• A bowl of cereal with milk. Try not to add sugar.

What to serve for drinks?

• A glass of milk

• Fluids are important for children - up to six cups of fluid should be encouraged daily, according to Safefood, the Food Safety Promotion Board. Milk and water are the best options. Straws and brightly coloured drinks bottles can make rehydrating more interesting.

• Milk shake/yoghurt drink

• Homemade vegetable soup (in a Thermos flask ) is great for cold days, while salads are light and refreshing for warmer weather. Both are packed with essential vitamins and minerals.

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