Across the country, thousands of parents are grabbing the Tupperware once again and sighing at the thought of what to fill it with for yet another term.
If your kids take packed lunches to school, finding something that's both appealing enough for them to actually eat and healthy is a challenge you probably haven't missed over the holidays.
Central to the quest for a decent packed lunch is steering children away from the worst of the 'targeted at kids' products. You know the ones - they call out to your offspring from the supermarket shelves with their brightly-coloured packaging, cartoon characters and half-baked supposedly parent-pleasing claims of healthiness. They're the Cheese Strings and the Dairylea Lunchables of this world, frequently higher in fat, higher in sugar and/ or higher in salt than grown-up equivalents.
Clearly, not all children's foods are the root of nutritional evil but even if, at best, they're comparable in content to their 'normal' counterparts, why get your kids used to expecting everything they eat to come in funky packaging or to have some sort of novelty value? Since when did a lovely chunk of cheddar wrapped in tin foil become so unpalatable?
Nutritionist Sally Child is damning of special children's foods. Sally, author of 5 a day for Kids Made Easy, says: 'I absolutely loathe the existence of 'kiddy food'! Why do we need different food for children, as if they were a different race? We should not feed into this. Some of this stuff is too high in salt, saturated fats and sugar e.g. yoghurts with loads of sugar and a cartoon character tempting children to pester for it, the worst choice.'
Obviously if you can shop without your children at the supermarket they won't be there to nag you but that's not always practical. If they are with you, Sally suggests giving them a list to shop from rather than free reign and offering healthy choices so they have some control, but within a limited range of options. This might be 'grapes or strawberries', or 'cheddar or cheese spread' rather than including Cheese Strings.
At the end of the day, the best way to avoid undesirable products is to decide to ignore the pestering and stop buying them. After all, it's you paying the bill at that check-out not your children.
Of course the healthiest packed lunch around won't have any nutritional value if it comes home uneaten and if you have an especially fussy eater on your hands, you might still choose to buy some kids' products. If you feel the need to do so, a bit of careful ingredient checking is wise.
Common pitfalls include the following claims:
'Low sugar' – it might well be but if so check for artificial sweeteners which are best-avoided for children. Also note that just because something is low sugar doesn't mean it's low calorie – it might still be high in fat.
'Low fat' – as above but in reverse so check sugar content. The key is to check both sugar and fat levels.
No artificial flavours/ colours/ preservatives. Just because they mention a lack of one or two of these doesn't mean all three are missing.
Check salt content too.
Brands which typically have a decent mix of healthiness and kid appeal include Organix, Ella's Kitchen and Yeo Valley.
Real world ways to make lunchboxes appealing without the 'kiddy food':
Children love dipping and dunking – try little pots of cream cheese or hummus plus cucumber or carrot sticks to stick in them.
If sandwiches get boring, go with pitta pockets, wraps, or crackers (although check salt levels in these) with cheese and veg. Rice or pasta salads are worth considering too.
Soup in a flask makes a good winter tummy filler.
Give them water in a cool flask, rather than sugared drinks.
Get them involved – give choices so they feel they have some say, and get them baking and making. Food they've had a part in is more likely to be eaten.
Compromise with a Friday treat...chocolate now and then definitely isn't the end of the world.
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