Don’t worry about the “perfect” lunch box

February 13, 2024 BY

Families should enjoy exploring a wide variety of foods with their children when packing the lunch box. Photo: FREEPIK.COM

With the school year under way for 2024, Victoria University (VU) researchers are offering parents advice to take the pressure off making the “perfect” school lunch and also help children develop a positive relationship with food.

VU Associate Professor Helen McCarthy worked as a clinical paediatric dietitian with many families for more than 20 years. She said there was often too much pressure on parents to make perfect meals and lunch boxes.

“Most parents are doing a great job at offering a variety of food options to their kids. However, they have to balance providing healthier options against their child’s food preference, the time available to prepare lunch boxes and cost of potentially wasted food. They also want to ensure their child eats something and doesn’t go hungry. This is a massive, and often overwhelming challenge for parents.

“Parents should focus on supporting children to build healthy relationships with food. Encouraging them to try a variety of foods is more likely to set them up for better health in the long term”Research has shown that food habits and food choices developed in childhood continue into adulthood which can reduce risks of obesity and associated physical and mental health issues like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression.”

She warned against food being labelled as “good” or ‘bad”, instead recommending that families enjoy exploring a wide variety of foods with their children, keeping foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt to a minimum. Chips and sweets should be included less often; perhaps just once or twice a week.

As well as a water bottle filled with tap water, parents should try to include something from each of the five food groups in a lunch box:

  • Grains – bread/wraps, pasta, rice or couscous
  • Vegetables – carrot, tomatoes, cucumber, corn or capsicum
  • Lean meat or an alternative – chicken, boiled egg, tuna or beans
  • Dairy – yogurt or cheese, which can be cow’s milk or a calcium fortified soy milk variety, and
  • Fruit – berries, bananas or dried fruit.

Associate Prof. Helen McCarthy said encouraging children to be part of the process also made a big difference.

“Including your kids in their own food choices is one of the best things parents can do. Giving them some control here really is important, but also encourage them to try new foods and leading by example. Over time, these activities are more likely to create adults who are open to trying new flavours and combinations and importantly, getting the nutrition they need.

“Most importantly, don’t make food a battleground. The more parents push children to eat or try certain foods, the more the kids will push back.

“Always offer and gently encourage them to try, lead by example; but if they are not interested, just leave it out of the lunch box and put in an alternative that they do like [this week].”