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Expert tips on how to pack a healthy and balanced lunch for kids

Make pack lunches interesting and fun for kids by including a variety of nutritious foods. (AFP pic)

With back-to-school time approaching, many parents will soon be back in the habit of planning and preparing school lunches. To give you some ideas on how to make lunches varied, interesting, and healthy, here we round up some expert tips on how to make a nutritious and tasty meal that kids will want to eat.

Keep it balanced

Many experts and studies agree that children and teenagers need a balanced diet including all food groups for healthy growth and development, so make sure lunches are varied and nutritious. Iron-rich leafy green vegetables such as spinach, which can be added into sandwiches, give a natural energy boost, while complex carbs such as sweet potatoes give slow-release energy to help sustain kids through classes. Also add in plenty of fruits, especially berries, to help with concentration levels. Previous research has also found that topping up levels of omega-3 with oily fish such as salmon can help boost brain functioning, and consider a hard-boiled egg for a nutritious snack, with a study published last year finding that they can encourage healthy growth.

It doesn’t have to be different everyday

Although the meal itself needs to include a variety of foods and nutrients, kids don’t need a huge variety of lunches throughout the week. According to Molly Paulson, Clinical Instructor at Georgia State University, reporting in The Conversation children don’t need to eat something different each day, with lunch often “comfort food” for kids, who like the routine of knowing what they will have for lunch. And, it will also make meal-prepping easier for parents.

Make lunch more interesting

A study published earlier this year found that when a school canteen added flavour to vegetables with herbs and spices, teenagers were encouraged to eat more of them than when they were cooked with just oil and salt. With this in mind, rather than adding in plain old veggies try some more exciting food combinations in kids’ lunches and take some time to find out what they like best. Perhaps some carrot or cucumber sticks with hummus or a spicy tomato salsa for dipping, or for kids that love PB, add in some apple slices for them to eat with their peanut butter for a hit of protein and an extra portion of their five a day.

Add a healthy drink

US research published earlier this year found that when the packed lunches of pre-schoolers age 3 to 5 included plain milk, the meals had the highest average score on Healthy Eating Index, followed by lunches with 100% fruit juice with no added sugar, and flavoured milk. However, meals that contained a sugary fruit drink showed the lowest score, with the team concluding that simplest way to improve the nutrition quality of a pack lunch is to include a healthy beverage.

Don’t forget snacks

Sabina Valentine, a registered dietitian at the University of Alberta, Canada also suggests providing children with snacks to munch on throughout the day. “They have small tummies and high nutrient needs, so they should have snacks throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be huge — just enough to keep them going,” she said. She suggests a handful of grapes or a half-cup of yoghurt for younger kids, and for older kids, especially around exam time, grab-and-go “power snacks” such as a slice of cheese and a handful of almonds, soft pretzels and hummus, or popcorn mixed with nuts and dried fruit.

Treats in moderation

Valentine is also a fan of using the 80/20 rule — eating healthy 80% of the time and indulging the other 20%. She says that it’s OK to treat kids occasionally by packing a less nutritious treat like a granola bar or a home-baked cookie, as long as it makes up no more than 20% of the meal.

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