Don’t buy snacks with a nutrition panel and other tips for healthy lunchboxes
By Carolyn Treweek
Leftovers, food grown at home and non-packaged snacks can improve the nutritional mix of a lunchbox. (Flickr: Amancay Maahs)
A good nutritionist will tell you to avoid the big supermarkets as much as possible — stick to the fresh stuff at your local greengrocer, butcher and baker. But, when you do find yourself under the fluorescent lights of the large chains, stick to the outside aisles — fruit, vegetables, dairy, meat and bread.
The minute you stray into the middle aisles you enter the realm of packaged foods with all its shiny, colourful wrapping and promises of low-fat, high-fibre, zero-sugar and school canteen approved snacks.
Nowhere are these marketing catchcries more visible than in the sections specifically dedicated to snacks for kids. “Natural”, “healthy treat” and “perfect lunchbox snack” are the words the time-poor parent really wants to believe.
All parents want to give their kids the best, and if the promise of something convenient and easy to pack into the school bag also comes with a health claim, then we won’t feel so guilty for not spending a little more time and effort baking goods at home to send to school.
While some do, it’s completely understandable that many don’t have the time or even the skills or desire to make muesli bars or muffins at home to go into their kids’ lunchboxes. Convenience often wins.
It would be great if the processed food industry was more accountable and transparent when marketing their goods. I mean, I can slap a 100 per cent fat-free sticker on a 1kg bag of sugar and I’m not lying, but it would be more than a little disingenuous.
Learning to read a nutrition panel is important when combating marketing jargon. Understanding the quantities and serving sizes of packaged snacks will help you when you make your decisions.
But do we really need to come that equipped to the supermarket just to buy some nutritious snacks for the kids?
How sugar can lead to bullying
In 2015, the World Health Organisation recommended adults and children reduce their free sugar intake to less than 10 per cent of their total energy consumption (and for further preventative health benefits they recommend 5 per cent). For the average 12-year-old child, this is equal to about eight teaspoons — or 32 grams — of sugar per day.
Overconsumption of sugar, trans fats and sodium is causing health complications not seen in previous generations. (ABC News: Elise Pianegonda)
Popular lunchbox friendly muesli bars can easily contain 6g of added sugar per bar (1.5 teaspoons). Add this to a vitamin-and-mineral-fortified kids breakfast cereal from that morning (between one and three teaspoons, if you have the 30g serving size), maybe a sports drink (at least six teaspoons) or flavoured low-fat milk (another two teaspoons) and those eight teaspoons have long been consumed before a granule of sugar has actually been witnessed.
Overconsumption of sugar, trans fats and sodium — which are found in large amounts in many of the products on supermarket shelves — is causing health complications not seen in previous generations.
With one in four children obese or overweight in Australia, it’s not only increased risk of diabetes and heart disease that faces our nation’s children, but the negative long-term mental and physical health implications from the bullying that children who carry excess weight receive.
By all means, buy convenient snacks and enjoy them in moderation for what they are, but don’t be fooled by the health claims.
Make kids make their own meals
One sure-fire way to avoid the misleading jargon and be guaranteed of health and nutritional benefits that give your kids the best chance at a healthy body and mind is to include fresh fruit and vegetables as your go-to meals and snacks.
Going to markets with your children and letting them choose the fresh produce and have a say in the decision making when it comes to what goes into their lunchboxes and on their plates — within set boundaries — gives them an element of control that they will appreciate.
Include them in menu planning, and even offer them a night of the week to cook for the family, even if it’s only a side dish or dessert that makes a chosen vegetable or fruit the hero.
Have your children plant and care for herbs, tomatoes, lettuce or other easy vegetables in pots that can be harvested and used in the family meals or put in a lunchbox.
Making fresh fruit and vegetable intake a normal part of your life can subtly influence your children. (ABC News: Ian Cutmore)
Pack a nutritious lunchbox for yourself for work and encourage your kids to pack theirs with you.
Last night’s leftovers and some fresh salad or chopped vegetables can provide perfect office sustenance, so show your child that meals and snacks don’t have to come in plastic wrap.
Normalise it. Model it. Make eating fresh fruits and vegetables part of your day — from having fresh fruit salad for breakfast, to snacking on an apple or carrot sticks mid-afternoon, to making your evening meals from scratch with seasonal produce from your local market or green grocer — in front of, and with, your kids.
It all helps to subtly influence your children into incorporating these kinds of behaviours into their own lives without a second thought.
You can be assured that if what you buy doesn’t need a nutrition panel, ingredient list or misleading health promises made up by a marketing team, your choice will be truly nutritious and beneficial to your whole family’s health and wellbeing.
Carolyn Treweek is a nutritionist and writes at Fresh for Kids.