Packing a kid’s lunch box is hard work, no doubt about it. Coming up with a nutritionally balanced, interesting, non-repetitive lunch solution is trying at the best of times. The last thing a parent wants to do is make it even harder on herself by packing the wrong kind of lunch box. The wrong kind of lunch box? You bet! There are certain items a lunch box should never contain. Here’s the low down.
1. Banned foods
This will vary from school to school. The banning of nuts has come under wide debate in recent years, and some schools over in Australia have extended this to seed products like tahini and sesame bars . Many schools also have egg products (including mayonnaise) and some high-allergen fruits such as strawberries, bananas and kiwi fruits on their ‘alert’ list. More and more schools are also introducing ‘recommendations’ for foods they don’t believe have a place at school – energy drinks, lollies and soft drinks top those lists. Check with your school for their food guidelines.
2. Foods that spoil
There are lots of ways to pack a lunch box so that it stays cool all day. An insulated bag with an ice pack and a frozen drink bottle stands a good chance of protecting the food inside until lunch time. Unless you’re absolutely certain that your lunch box can stand the test, don’t pack foods like yoghurt, rice, cold cuts, chicken, fish (including pre-opened tinned tuna) or egg products.
3. Messy foods
Besides a parent’s drudgery of tackling day-old stains on a school uniform, being at school while dirty or smelly isn’t nice for any child. Foods to avoid are tomato sauce (it just has a tendency to ooze out the other end when you take a bite), yoghurt in a tub (the lids are tricky for little hands and when they finally give… so does the contents), runny foods like tuck shop meat pies or flavoured milk and, unless your child has particularly good table manners, food requiring cutlery like leftover pasta or casserole.
4. Foods that are tricky
Tricky foods include foods with intricate packaging that small hands just can’t budge. The teacher on playground duty can only open so many packets of chips per minute, so if your child needs help opening hers, don’t pack them! Popper drinks with straws that are welded to the side of the pack are a tricky food. Yoghurt can also prove elusive for little people – the “tear off” lids are anything but, and many kids end up stabbing at the lid with their plastic spoon. Instead, look for easy-to-use ‘tearaway’ strips that open the goods once torn or pack small portions into containers they can manage.
5. Monotonous food
How well I know the glee when all three of my kids’ lunch boxes come home completely empty. Aha, I think, the secret food combination is revelled at last: a vegemite sandwich, a cheese triangle, three crackers, apple chips and raspberries it is for the rest of their schooling days. It works for about three days and then suddenly the spell is broken – the same food they loved three days ago starts coming home uneaten and the cycle starts all over again.
The trick is to get three or four good lunch box combinations sorted (five if you can stretch it) and rotate them. So the vegemite combo can be Mondays, a chicken combo on Tuesdays, a tuna salad combo on Wednesdays, and so on. The variety does them the world of good and they totally don’t realise they’re eating the same four lunches day in day out. Result!
6. Embarrassing food
How well my husband remembers the lunches his Italian mama lovingly packed for him: mortadella focaccia, arancini balls, salami pasta… bliss! Except, not bliss for a ten year old boy sitting in a very Australian school playground. All he ever wanted was a vegemite sanga and an orange.
Of course, these days the majority of us are probably popping a few ‘exotic’ combinations into our kids’ lunch boxes, but the fact still remains that there will be cool food and very uncool food. I learned this the hard way when my nine year old son quietly let me know that my homemade muesli bars were ‘embarrassing’ and that he just wanted a ‘muesli bar in a wrapper’ for once. Needless to say, he didn’t exactly get his wish, but I did concede to putting in a consolation dairy milk mini chocolate from time to time. Kids just want to fit in.
7. Foods they really don’t like
Another one I learned the hard way. My third-born started school last year and I sent her off with my tried and trusty lunch box combinations only to find that what her brother and sister deemed acceptable was anything but. She didn’t like anything they liked at all! I fought this for months – sending her off with the same lunch as her siblings, determined to, I don’t know, starve her out. It absolutely backfired on me. At the end of each day she was just a very, very hungry little girl with a very full lunch box. The school lunch box is not the place for experimentation.
So these days I pack her something quite different to the others – she likes little containers of random things like olives, gherkins, cheese snacks and crackers, and leftover pasta and rice. You’ve got to pack them things they’ll eat – the school lunch is far too important a meal to risk them not eating any of it.
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