With the school year well underway, the routine of packing lunchboxes will be starting to pall for parents. While schools and health professionals regularly advocate for healthy lunchboxes, Healthy Food Guide nutritionist Claire Turnbull says lunchboxes are often a source of stress for parents.

“As parents, it’s easy to feel like we’re not doing enough, or we’re always being criticised.”
She says while it is important to aim for a healthy lunchbox, parents should also look at the bigger picture. “It’s about balance over time. Look at what they’re eating over the whole week, not just at school.”

She suggests parents go “back to the basics”, picking food that is as unprocessed as possible.

“The perception of normal is based on what food manufacturers make available. We need to get back to what is it that our bodies require and go from there. The way that children eat now, they learn that as the ‘normal’.”

Turnbull says sugary drinks are not needed. “They are sold to make money, not because they benefit our nutrition.”

Water should be the “line in the sand”, she says.

“Social pressure has a huge influence on what children eat and what they want to eat. Water-only makes it very easy for children to decide and to make the right choice.”

Unprocessed foods best

Sport Waikato chief executive Matthew Cooper says unprocessed foods are the best choices for lunchboxes.

“Packaged and processed foods are often high in sugar and/or fat. These two things can have a big impact on behaviour and energy levels.”

He says any healthy change is a good change, and suggests schools look at milk and water-only policies as a place to start.

“Small changes can have a big impact on health and wellbeing for our tamariki, whānau and communities. Being active with friends and whānau is enjoyable and can positively impact on social, emotional and mental wellbeing, as well as physical.”

New River Primary School recognised it needed to make a change around healthy eating and physical activity. Teacher Gina Larson-White says healthy eating is essential for students to “achieve their full academic potential,” physical and mental growth, and lifelong health and wellbeing.

“We wanted to create a healthy eating environment by enabling students to possess the knowledge and skills necessary to make nutritious and enjoyable food choices for a lifetime, and for the staff to model healthy eating as a valuable part of daily life.”

The school is part of Fruit in Schools programme, which provides a piece of fruit to each student every day.

It is also a ‘Koha Kai School’ with hot lunches cooked onsite three days a week. The meals are only $2 and follow Heart Foundation recipe guidelines. A breakfast programme is also run at the school, and the school has sandwiches available every day for children without lunch.

“This ensures our tamariki can access healthy meals regardless of their social or financial circumstances.”

The school is also water or milk-only, and has a large school garden cared for by students.

Lunchbox promotion week

An annual healthy lunchbox promotion encourages families to explore and include healthier options.

“At the end of our lunchbox promotion week we have an end-of-term celebration lunch, where families are invited in to share healthy kai. We also run termly healthy lunchbox workshops for whānau from Yvette at the Heart Foundation.”

The school also piloted a toothbrushing programme in 2014 that continues today.

“All students brush their teeth daily at school. This has been shown to improve the overall oral health of our tamariki and reduced our plaque scores.”

Heart Foundation national nutrition advisor Lily Henderson says children need a variety of healthy foods to learn and grow.

“Try packing lunchboxes with plenty of whole foods that are close to how they’re found in nature like vegetables, fruit, legumes, whole grains, lean meats, fish, dairy, nuts and seeds.”

Turnbull says parents shouldn’t assume food is returned home because their child doesn’t like it.

“It might have been impractical for them to eat; they may have been more interested in playing. There’s lots of reasons food doesn’t get eaten.”

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