“I could write a whole book on the ongoing lunch box dilemma,” says Alex Elliott-Howery, owner of cafes in Sydney’s Marrickville and Annandale, and author of the Cornersmith cookbooks. “My daughter is just finishing primary school and my son is in Year 4, so I’ve been making school lunches for what seems like an eternity. I lie awake at night wondering what the answer might be for delicious, nutritious, packet-free food that can sit in a box all day – and will actually get eaten.”
It’s a problem many of us are familiar with, and as our kids head back to school in the coming weeks, one that is no doubt on many of our minds. The perfect lunch box – filled with quick-to-prepare, homemade, healthy foods that will all be eaten, with no waste (and as few plastic bits and bobs as possible) – seems so elusive as the weeks drag on and we get further and further into the school year, but believe us: it is actually possible.
The first thing you need to do is embrace imperfection, says Elliott-Howery. “Even after all this time,” she says, “I’m still coming to terms with the fact that there are good days, OK days… and really bad days. And that that’s normal.” She says her “best weeks” begin with Sunday prep. “I poach a whole chicken, and shred the meat for chicken, lettuce and mayonnaise wraps. I make meatbalIs or sausage rolls and freeze them. I make tahini and chocolate chip muesli bars, berry and yoghurt muffins and homemade fruit leathers. On those weeks, I skip off to work like I’ve won a Nobel Prize.”
But as so many of us know, the chance to set aside half of Sunday to prepare for the week doesn’t always come. That’s when Elliott-Howery turns to leftovers – stir fries, spaghetti bolognese and noodle salads, for instance. Add a few snacks – like popcorn, fresh fruit and some vegie sticks – and you’ve got yourself a lunch that hits all the nutrition points, even if it’s not going to win any Instagram double-taps.
For Ngaire Hobbins, author of , the lunchbox equation is simple. “For body and brain health, for kids and adults alike, there’s no great mystery: it comes down to eating food that has undergone minimal change from its original form, and getting good proteins with lots and lots of different colours in every meal.” In layman’s terms, that translates to sticks of carrot, celery, capsicum and cucumber, snow peas and beans with proteins like cheese cubes, nuts (check your school’s policy), a chicken drumstick, slices of cold meat or meatballs and dips like hummus.
Importantly, Elliott-Howery says that there are days where the wheels are just going to fall off – life gets busy and sometimes, packing a nutritious, balanced lunchbox really is the lowest of your priorities. “Honestly, this morning I sent the kids to school with two-day old pizza and $5 for the canteen. Not a vegetable in sight! Once upon a time, I would’ve beaten myself up about it, now I realise it will probably be their favourite lunch this term.”
Top tips for a genius lunchbox
- Hard-boil a dozen eggs on Sunday (add a pinch of bicarb soda to the water as the eggs boil; the shells will be easier to peel away). These make great lunchbox bites, sandwich ingredients, speedy breakfasts and after-school snacks.
- Fact: kids love snacking. Make their lunchbox a collection of healthy, balanced snacks, and they’ll devour it daily. Sheets of nori cut into strips, cubes of cheese, air-popped popcorn, edamame beans, halved cherry tomatoes – delicious, nutritious and simple. You could also do a Ploughman’s style lunch: slices of pasture-raised ham, halved boiled eggs, pickles, a piece of fruit and some vegies – yum!
- Another fact: kids love food on sticks. Chicken skewers, meat-and-cheese kebabs, sliced-sausage-and-vegie skewers… there are so many variations.
- Think about texture: crunchy vegies > limp vegies. Pack your kid’s lunchbox with capsicum, sugar snap peas and carrots. And don’t forget to add a condiment (because truly, life is so much better with condiments). It doesn’t have to be fancy: hummus, tzatziki, salsa – even a dollop of Greek yoghurt with a little salt does the trick!
- Make a double batch of muffins – savoury or sweet – and freeze for an easy snack. You don’t have to defrost: it’ll thaw in the lunchbox and keep everything else cool in the process.
- Remember: if your kid doesn’t eat it at home, they won’t eat it at school. Lunchboxes are not experiments.
- Think of foods that taste just as good cold as they do hot: frittatas, chicken drumsticks, dumplings and noodles are all safe bets.
- Finally, remember that treats have a place in a healthy lunchbox. A small slice of homemade cake or a chocolate every now and then keeps things fun and interesting. And that’s the kind of parent you are, right?!