With many children consuming at least half of their daily meals at school, good nutrition in schools is more important than ever.
All meals served in schools must meet strict nutritional standards, and lunchboxes should be no exception. Despite this, a report commissioned by the Food Standards Agency found only 1% of lunchbox meals met the same healthy standards as school canteen meals. More than four-fifths contained foods high in saturated fat, salt and sugar, only one in five contained any vegetables or salad and only half included a piece of fruit.
Research suggests that providing well-balanced, nutritious school meals not only improves children's general health but also drives up standards in classrooms, with well-nourished pupils showing clear academic benefits. With this in mind, it's important for parents and school workers to collaborate in a bid to encourage and deliver healthy, nutritious choices every day.
A healthy balance
No single food group will provide all the nutrients that growing children need. A balanced school meal should therefore follow the following formula: Energy-giving carbohydrates (such as bread, pasta, rice and potatoes); a source of protein (from lean meat, fish, eggs, beans and pulses); a dairy item (such as cheese or yoghurt); vegetables or salad, and a portion of fruit. Following this simple formula will help ensure that each meal provides the key nutrients children need for energy, weight management, cognitive function, growth and development.
Sandwiches are the obvious choice for packed lunches, but the nutritional content depends largely on the filling. Spreads such as jam and honey have high sugar content and are low in protein, which is essential for growing tissues. Meals that are low in protein are also not as satisfying as protein‑rich alternatives, so may leave children feeling hungry soon afterwards. With this in mind, some ideal protein-rich sandwich fillings include:
- Sliced ham, chicken or turkey with mixed salad
- Hummous and grated carrot
- Cream cheese with sliced tomato or cucumber
- Egg and cress
- Peanut butter
Dark green salad leaves such as rocket and watercress are a great addition to any sandwich as they are higher in heart‑healthy nutrients than standard iceberg lettuce, as well as being rich in flavour. Extra fillings such as sliced avocado (rich in beneficial monounsaturated fats) and beetroot (an excellent source of potassium, magnesium and iron as well as vitamins A, B6 and C) will provide a further nutrient-boost to any sandwich.
Brown vs. white
Wholemeal bread and pasta contain more nutrients and fibre than white alternatives, meaning they take longer for the body to digest and keep children feeling fuller for longer. 'Best of both' varieties of bread (made with 50% white and 50% wholemeal flours) or wholemeal pitta breads are a good alternative for children who are more used to white bread.
Healthy snacks for children should provide a source of energy as well as a selection of key nutrients. Most crisps, chocolates and biscuits are high in sugar or fat but low in vitamins and minerals, meaning they provide very little nutritional benefit. They are therefore best as a treat a couple of times a week, rather than an everyday staple.
More nutritious alternatives include:
- A small pot of nuts (in non-allergic individuals)
- Individually wrapped cheeses (such as Babybels or mini Cathedral City squares)
- Fresh or dried fruit (such as a banana, an easy-peel satsuma, dried apricots or a small box of raisins) Chopped vegetables such as celery, carrot sticks or cherry tomatoes
- Yogurts (opt for natural yogurt where possible, with fresh berries for natural sweetness)
- Vegetable crisps made with carrots, parsnip and beetroot
Try to give them plenty of variety so they'll have enough energy to last throughout the day and won't get bored of the same textures and flavours. Snacks that include a mix of brightly coloured produce will also provide the most varied selection of beneficial nutrients.
Here's to happy, healthy lunches!