It is all too easy for both parents and children to get into a routine of having the same packed lunch day in and day out. Nutritional content becomes limited and the children are not encouraged to experiment with new flavours, textures and experiences. The fussy eater is not exposed to new foods or new ingredients, as might be the case with a cooked school lunch, and may end up following the eating habits of their parents, who may only buy specific brands and eat a narrow range of foods.
Due to a lack of facilities or for kashrut reasons, many children do not have the opportunity to eat school lunches, but that does not mean your children need to miss out nutritionally.
There plenty of healthy options and ideas to make lunchtime more exciting and help them achieve their crucial five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.
However, we are all very busy, so packed lunches need to be easy to prepare. Fresh is best, but creating complex menus in the midst of the 7.30am rush hour at home is more than most parents are able to take on.
The answer lies in planning in advance, preparing in stages, keeping a good stock cupboard of healthy options, shopping wisely and getting the children to make them with you — so in time they will do it themselves.
Start by experimenting with different varieties of bread — brown, wholemeal, multigrain, bagels, sliced bread, pitta, wraps, ciabatta and so on.
Then you can build on the basics, adding slightly different twists. Being too radical may not work, but if your child likes egg, for example, experiment by adding sweetcorn, chopped peppers, tomato, cucumber, salad, roasted vegetables or even olives either individually or collectively.
Include fish at least once a week — salmon pâté is easy, but fish cakes, goujons and cold salmon can replace the traditional sandwich.
Another option is to use leftovers from dinner the night before and have it as the perfect cold lunch. Cold fish pie, shepherd’s pie, meat loaf, risotto, sausages, chicken salad are easy and economical to make for dinner and an even better option for lunch the next day.
Potatoes can be served in such a variety of ways and provide good carbohydrate and vitamins. Cold jacket potato, potato salad and Spanish potato tortilla (my recipe below) all make good lunch box meals.
Other quick fixes to get you through the week include chicken drumsticks, coleslaw, sliced meats, pasta salads, vegetable bakes, sushi and of course on a different day, cold quiche, pizza wedges, cartons of cottage cheese, slabs of cheese with crackers. All these will make a change from your standard sandwich.
For a real treat, include a small tub of hummus with some carrot or cucumber batons or ring the changes and add cooked sweet potato wedges, al dente small pieces of broccoli or cauliflower florets.
Always ensure that your child has lots of water during the day. Fruit will also help to hydrate them. Provide at least once piece of fruit that is easy to eat — peel it or cut up as there is more chance it will get eaten.
Do check with your school as they may have particular dietary or kashrut rules for you to follow. But the provision of food in schools is meant to be a two-way process between parents and children. The Schools Trust, the body set up by the government to improve school dinners, suggests drawing up a policy for packed lunches and some schools have banned fizzy drinks and chocolate bars. In others the PTA have introduced cooking sessions and workshops for parents to show them how to make “the healthy lunch box” which has helped to encourage new ingredients and contents.
So by planning or even freezing ahead, you can make your child’s school lunch a balanced and varied one and one that can enhance their development, concentration and all-round health.
Red pepper potato tortilla
Preparation time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes
Serves: 6 people
● 450g baby new potatoes – peeled and thinly sliced
● 1 Spanish onion – peeled
● 1 red pepper — cored and roughly chopped
● 3 tablespoons olive oil
● 4 eggs
● Salt and freshly ground black pepper
● Garnish: Sprigs of flat leaf parsley
● Slice the onion into rings.
● Heat 2 tbsps of the olive oil into a 20cm heavy based frying pan.
● Add the sliced potatoes and the onions and cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes until the potatoes are just tender.
● Remove from the heat.
In a large bowl, whisk the eggs together. Season well.
● Add the chopped red pepper, cooked potatoes and onions.
● Heat the remaining tbsp of olive oil in the frying pan.
● Pour in the potato mixture. Cook gently for 5-8 minutes until the mixture is almost set.
● Place a large plate upside over the pan, invert the tortilla on to the plate and then slide it back into the pan.
● Cook for a final 2-3 minutes until the underside is golden brown.
● Slide out of the pan onto a chopping board and cut into wedges.
● Serve warm garnished with sprigs of parsley.