It's that time of the year again - back to school for children! If you're a parent trying to find creative ideas to ensure a healthy meal for your child, we've got you covered! Nutritionist, Shameera Somani and Afshan Khoja have prepared some handy tips to help make lunchbox packing a breeze, and a yummy treat that children won't be able to resist!

Summer's almost over, and most children are getting ready to head back to school. While students are thinking about stationary, backpacks, shoes and planning for the next year of learning, parents have another important thing on their minds: PACKING LUNCH!

Many parents face a "lunchbox dilemma" as soon as school begins. The problem is compounded further if schools don't have a functional cafeteria, and for most caretakers, this is what nightmares are made of. It's not just about providing lunches that children would eat, but also ones that are nutritionally balanced to support growth and provide energy throughout the day. A healthy school lunch makes up a third of a child's daily nutritional requirement and is a key component for enhancing focus and concentration. Nutritious meals are also linked to better test scores. But, the thought of having to cook something every single day can be overwhelming, especially when it means making time in an already packed schedule. 

With a few simple strategies, parents can not only make the process simpler, but also fun for the whole family. The first step is to stop thinking of packing lunches as a "chore." Sounds like an alien concept? Read on for some specific tips that you can incorporate into your lifestyle to solve your lunchbox dilemma!

  • It takes a village:

    First things first - involve the whole family. The more "ownership" children have in deciding their meals, the more inclined they will be to eat them. From shopping for groceries, to reading food labels, to planning the weekly meal plan, and even preparing the meals - involve children in making lunch, not only for themselves but for the whole family. This may help children feel empowered and responsible, and reduce the chances of them bringing back half-eaten - or worse - uneaten lunches. Meal planning is also a great time to start having family conversations about nutrition, healthy eating and the importance of balancing meals with exercise. It's never too early to ingrain good eating habits - as a family. 

  • Get an early start:

    A key ingredient of the lunchbox dilemma is trying to do everything in one go, or at the last minute. Planning can solve half the problem. Find some time during the week to chalk out the weekly lunchbox menu so that you can make a grocery list (remember, Tip 1 - involve your children in the process!). Once you have all the ingredients, aim to prepare meals in one go. That way, the cooking is done ahead of time and all that's left on the day is to put the meal together. For example, you can prepare make-ahead sandwich stuffings: chicken and vegetable dry curry, boiled chicken or eggs, beans or chickpeas, eggs or salmon salad (see our meal options to help get you started). You can also prepare the vegetables to accompany your sandwich ahead of time. This is where your children can help! Older children can help by shredding lettuce or cutting cucumbers, whilst the younger ones can wash, arrange and pack. If the bulk of the preparation is done, you're less likely to opt out. 

  • Variety is the spice of lunchboxes:

    Like adults, children can easily get bored with the same old meals. Find interesting variations in the stuffing for your sandwiches, wraps and chapatis. In some cases, getting children to eat their greens can be a real challenge. Try to combine leafy vegetables, like spinach and fenugreek with other familiar vegetables. Children tend to be attracted to colours, shapes and variety on their plates, and like most, they 'eat with their eyes.' Involve the children and cut fruits, vegetables, and sandwiches into interesting shapes. Stars, triangles, diamonds, and crescents work wonders in creating a visually appealing lunch box. Use the natural rainbow colours of fruits and vegetables to your advantage. (Read more about how you can add more colour to your diet here). 

  • Mix it up and make it count:

    Choose foods from different food groups like cereals, fruits and vegetables, pulses, meat and fish, and nuts and seeds (avoid if your school is a nut-free zone). Such variety will ensure a good mix of healthy carbohydrates, protein, fibre, minerals and vitamins to meet your child's nutritional needs. Limit the use of packaged, refined and highly processed foods, such as cakes, pastries, instant noodles or white bread. Instead, opt for whole grains and wholesome foods that provide the necessary nutrients and fibre to promote your child's digestive health. Fibre is not only filling, but also helps to prevent constipation.  

  • Make food fun:

    Some children may be partial to sweets, chocolates and high-calorie foods, like pizza, chips and fries. While these can be an occasional indulgence - reserved for birthdays, festivals or celebrations - a high-calorie diet, coupled with a sedentary lifestyle are the leading cause of higher weights in children. If you're struggling with picky eaters, incorporate their favourite picks with nutritious alternatives. For example, a whole wheat chapati or pita bread can serve as a pizza base, instead of dough made with white flour. Use natural sweeteners, like dates, apricots and prunes, instead of added sugar and molasses to make sweet treats. If children learn to associate wholesome and nourishing ingredients with delicious meals, they will be more inclined to enjoy them. (Check out some of our healthy dessert options at TheIsmaili Nutrition Centre's Recipes page). 

  • Leftovers are your best friends:

    Using leftovers can save time and also decrease food wastage. Leftover rice can be seasoned or sautéed with lemon, tomatoes or assorted vegetables, peas and beans to make pulavs or risottos. Leftover vegetables can be used as stuffing for chapatis, wraps, sandwiches and rolls, or to make cutlets and tikkis. Upma and rolls can also be made from leftover bread and chapatis. (Find some of these recipes here).

  • Don't forget about hydration:

    It's important that children drink adequate amounts of water to prevent dehydration. This is even more important during the warmer weather - especially if they're playing outdoors. Let children choose a water bottle they like and will enjoy drinking from. Make sure your child is finishing their water and refilling at school. Sodas, aerated beverages and sweetened fruit juices are loaded with sugar and are best limited or avoided. Consider making hydration "fun" by flavouring water with slices of fruit, or making chaas (buttermilk) or limbu pani (lemonade).

With a little bit of planning and some tips, tricks and treats, one can manage to turn around the lunchbox dilemma. You can do it too!

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  1. US Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Services, National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet
  2. School Meal Quality and Academic Performance
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Childhood obesity causes and consequences, Dec. 15, 2016
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Health and Academic Achievement, May, 2014
  5. Action for Healthy Kids, The Learning Connection


About the Authors :

Shameera Somani is an award-winning nutritionist, teacher and content writer. A former director of Aga Khan Health Service, India she currently serves the Aga Khan Health Board for India. Her love for travel involves visiting World Heritage Sites across the globe.

Afshan Khoja is a career communications strategist. She has written for numerous publications and is currently working with The Ismaili Nutrition Centre as a TKN communications specialist.

Peer Review & Edits: Sanja Petrovic RD, CDE, MSc | Shahzadi Devje RD, CDE, MSc | Noor Pirani