As everyone heads back to work or school, the focus turns to what to put in the lunchbox yet again. If it’s true that for each child, Australian parents face the task of producing about 2,500 lunches to get them through 13 years of school, it’s no wonder many get frustrated trying to keep the lunchbox both healthy and interesting, not only for the kids but for the adults in the household too.
The Melbourne Herald Sun newspaper recently interviewed me for their article on lunchbox choices for adults from tradies to sedentary office workers, as well as kids. Journalist Dan Stock claimed the second most heard refrain in the kitchen (after ‘what’s for dinner?’) is ‘I don’t like my lunchbox. I’m bored with sandwiches’.
He quotes Roy Morgan Research that only 2% of us over 14 are eating our requisite two serves of fruit and five of vegetables daily, so the lunchbox is the perfect place to start to change things if we want to stay healthy!
Here’s the lunchbox advice I gave his readers.
For kids, think, about the foods they like to eat and put them in a form that’s easy to eat.
The lunchbox is the time when you can introduce new foods and keep things interesting and exciting. And that includes fruit and veggies – the more colourful the better.
And give your kids food in lots of little containers – a ‘deconstructed’ lunchbox. One container should be filled with veg: carrot sticks, baby corn, cherry tomatoes, snow peas. Anything colourful, interesting and seasonal. Another should be filled with fruit – berries or melon slices in summer, cut up fruit like apples or pears in winter. You can also add a small tub of yoghurt for dipping.
Sandwiches are always useful, but aim for wholegrain for preference. If there’s resistance, try one white slice and one wholegrain to start. Don’t be afraid to mix it up to make it interesting. Make mini burgers, or perhaps a pita pocket like a burrito, kids love that sort of thing. Finally a little home-made muesli bar – without excess sugar – or a mini muffin for something sweet is a good compromise.
For those in a physically demanding job, like tradies, think about plenty of protein foods
Leftover steak in a sandwich, hard boiled eggs as a snack. Also think about carbohydrates to ensure sustained energy through the day. Making a cold souvlaki-style lunch with lamb works with thick bread and lots of salad; or add coleslaw to a chicken kebab. Lean sources of protein work well with a salad, but it has to feel substantial for someone working hard. Builder Dan Reilly on The Block TV show says his go-to lunchbox staples are tuna, banana and mixed nuts.
Busy mums who work in an office benefit by thinking about your week in advance.
Make use of the office ‘fridge, keep good snacks in there like yoghurt and cheese. Or use the microwave to heat up leftovers like pasta. Eating a satisfying lunch helps ward of the afternoon snack attack, but making your own mini muffins (especially savoury vegie ones) is a good alternative to the store bought sugar-laden ones. Always make them mini and serve on a plate, so you realise what, and how much, you’re eating.
Teenage girls and boys have different needs at lunchtime.
For girls, salads are the rule and buzz foods like quinoa and kale are well received. Start with a grain: barley or rice or quinoa. Then add all the exciting veg like snow peas, broccoli, peas, pomegranate. Then add some good protein food like grilled chicken breast or lean beef.
Teenage boys are going to need very substantial meals, because they are at their most active. A good way to increase their vegetable intake is with cold roast sweet potato or carrots or pumpkin, a dressing with seeds, then add lean meat. Pulled pork or shredded chicken make for great sandwich fillings. Even cold lamb chops are good, in wholegrain bread or a roll. Or why not try potato salad or coleslaw, blended with sliced chicken or tuna, packed in a tub for school lunches.
Make extra serves at dinner then include in lunchbox meals the next day or later in the week.
Varying the lunch throughout the week works equally well for mum, dad and the kids. You could have a grain salad one day, a noodle salad later in the week; wraps or wholegrain rolls one day and a do it yourself protein lunch the next. Eggs are fantastic. A frittata works for the whole family, just the serving sizes differ: teen boys and a tradie might have it in a roll; kids served it in little squares; mum could have hers with a salad. Cold soups in summer and warm in a thermos for winter with a wholegrain roll are great options too.
And don’t forget, lunchboxes need to be stored properly to avoid spoilage so always use coolbricks or frozen drinks to protect lunchbox foods. And keeping foods separated in containers or sections helps avoid spoilage.
Discussed lunchbox solutions with Denis Walter on radio 3AW: find the podcast here.
After the Melbourne Herald Sun story on lunchboxes that appeared January 27, the Age and Sydney Morning Herald Good Food section featured me in their Kitchen Spy page on February 3 if you'd like to know what's in my kitchen. Sorry, neither piece available online.
But below are a couple of recipes that work well for the lunchbox. Let me know your best lunchbox ideas.
Right Sized Veggie Burgers
This recipe is from my award-winning book: Let’s Eat Right! For Families
1 cup cooked brown lentils, lightly mashed
1 cup cooked and mashed potato
½ cup grated carrot
½ cup rolled oats
½ cup wholemeal breadcrumbs
1 medium onion, peeled and grated
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon turmeric
½ teaspoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Oat bran or wheatgerm for coating
- Combine all the ingredients and mix well. With wet hands, firmly mould the mixture into patty shapes. Coat each patty in oat bran or wheat germ; press in coating so it sticks to the patty. Spray a baking tray with non-stick cooking spray or lightly grease the tray with oil. Place the patties on the tray. Bake at 220°C for 20 minutes; use a metal spatula to turn the patties carefully over once during cooking.
Serving suggestion: Serve in multigrain bun or pita pocket with salad fillings of choice
Pumpkin Corn Muffins
Makes 12 or 18 mini muffins
1 cup diced Kent or butternut pumpkin, cooked
2 cups self raising flour
1 cup Jalna Low Fat Vanilla Yoghurt
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/3 cup vegetable oil
2/3 cup (80g) grated cheddar cheese
1 small (100g) zucchini, coarsely grated
1/2 cup finely diced red capsicum
1/2 cup corn kernels
2 green onions, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- Preheat oven to 200ºC (180ºC fan-forced).
- Sift flour into a large bowl and make a well in the centre.
- In a separate bowl combine yoghurt, egg and oil and whisk until well combined. Stir in cheese, zucchini, pumpkin, capsicum, corn, onion and parsley.
- Pour yoghurt mixture into the flour and fold in gently with a large metal spoon until just combined. Don’t over-mix; the mixture should still be slightly lumpy.
- Spoon mixture into a non-stick 12 hole (1/3 cup/80ml) muffin pan. Bake for 25 minutes or until golden and cooked when tested with a skewer. Stand for 5 minutes before turning onto cake rack to cool.
Potato & Tuna Salad with Mustard Dressing
½ cup Jalna Fat Free Natural or Low Fat Greek Yoghurt
¼ cup low fat sour cream or mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Dijon or wholegrain mustard
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 kg small new potatoes (chats)
300g fresh or canned tuna (or salmon)
4 medium dill cucumbers, finely diced
2 tablespoons each chopped chives and dill
salt & pepper
- Wash potatoes and simmer, unpeeled, until just cooked. Drain and leave to cool.
- While the potatoes are cooking, panfry or chargrill fresh tuna (no need to cook if using canned). Flake fish and carefully combine with dill cucumbers, chives, dill and potatoes.
- Whisk dressing ingredients and gently mix through potato salad. Season to taste.