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Easy ways to upgrade your child’s lunchbox


Easy ways to upgrade your child's lunchbox

Easy ways to upgrade your child’s lunchbox

Sometimes I miss the days when I didn’t know all I do about health. Ignorance really was bliss. When my eldest daughter started school 11 years ago, I would make a sandwich with any bread, the filling would either be peanut butter with jam; a deli meat; cheese; or tuna with mayo. I would then throw in a canned fruit juice and some fruit. Occasionally I would give her a treat. That much I knew to do.

Fast forward 11 years and my youngest son’s first day at school: Is the bread wholegrain? Is it from a bakery, commercially processed or homemade? No commercial peanut butter, no deli meats, hardly any cheese and occasionally tuna with mayo. And definitely no canned fruit juices. The fresh fruits have increased and the treats have become home-made.

We all want the best for our kids and naturally that includes their health. But with kids especially, the road to good health and simple holistic foods can be quite bumpy. There are simply too many commercial temptations coupled with peer pressure. What child wants to be the uncool kid with the kale chips in their lunchbox?

So even though kale chips may be far off for you and your child, there are many ways to elevate or upgrade your child’s existing lunch box staples:

Use wholegrain, freshly baked bread. As a general rule, bread belongs to the “processed foods” category and is better avoided. However, over the years, I have come to realize that it is almost impossible to build a child’s school lunch without a sandwich. It just doesn’t work for very long. Commercially produced bread, even wholewheat or wholegrain, is really no different than white bread in terms of how it is metabolized in the body. They both turn into sugar that spikes insulin levels. However, by using a freshly baked loaf from an artisan baker or from home, you are avoiding additives, stabilizers and preservatives. You will notice how a fresh loaf will never last as long as a commercially processed one.

Use homemade peanut butter. Again, commercial peanut butters contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated trans fats which are BAD. They also contain a lot of unnecessary and toxic sugar in the form of high fructose corn syrup (more on that later). I have recently found “natural” peanut butter in the supermarket that is made purely from peanuts but it is still very easy to make peanut butter at home. The easiest recipe I have found is here. It even has a special ‘treat’ recipe at the end:

While jams and jellies don’t contain trans fats, they do have a lot of sugar. Make your own whenever possible if your child is a jam lover. Although I haven’t tried this recipe myself yet, I am sharing it because of its simplicity and the fact that it has no white sugar whatsoever and uses apples instead of pectin to thicken the jam.

Use tuna canned in BPA-free cans (check labels). Also, try to choose tuna that is “light” as opposed to “white.” Light tuna tends to have less mercury than white. Skipjack tuna is considered to have the smallest amount of mercury. Limit tuna consumption to no more than 12oz or 1/3kg per week. Make your own homemade mayonnaise to go with  it.

Give your child fresh juices or just plain water. Canned fruit juices, even the ones that say “sugar free” are nothing  more than diluted, preserved, additive-laden liquids. And the fact that you can’t see what’s in the box is the biggest indicator to always avoid eating or drinking what’s inside.This one is a little tricky though because fresh fruit juices don’t necessarily keep very well in a lunchbox (another difference between fresh and canned). I have tried to give my son fresh green juice in an airtight bottle but he came home and said it “smelled.” I tried again with simple freshly squeezed apple juice and his reaction was the same. I think this is probably due to the fact that the juices are not refrigerated so they spoiled. So now he only takes water to school. I give him fresh juices in the morning before school or after school as a snack. This wasn’t easy. He would return home and ask me why he was the only one without a canned juice. Slowly I explained to him that it’s not healthy and that we make our own juice because we get to choose our ingredients and it’s more fun. It took some time but it is the norm now. I do occasionally (2-3 times per year) send a canned juice.

Give your child plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables. Apples, bananas, oranges, grapes, tangerines, strawberries, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, whatever is in season, pile it on. You can never give them enough.

Give them a homemade treat every once in awhile.  Homemade cookies or cakes, although made with flour and sugar, are not loaded with artificial coloring, trans fats or high fructose corn syrup. And since you will only be making them every so often, and the majority of your child’s food will consist of fruits and vegetables, then their effect will be negligible. There are many recipes online now that use healthier substitutions for basic ingredients like flour or white sugar. Here are two yummy dessert recipes for you to try:


Sliced apple on top of peanut butter.

Egg salad: boiled eggs (try to find organic, free range eggs), celery, onions, mustard, mayonnaise (homemade whenever possible).

Mash an avocado and sprinkle it with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, add a tomato or if you have time, make a guacamole spread. This can be made ahead of time and kept in the refrigerator for later use.

Hummus. There are endless varieties of hummus and toppings to go with it. Although I really like these recipes by Martha Stewart, I prefer to use raw chickpeas that we boil at home instead of the canned variety. Again, this can be made up ahead of time and stored in the refrigerator.

Make a batch of grilled chicken or turkey breasts or roast beef instead of deli meats. Slice the chicken, turkey or roast beef thinly and freeze them in portions in the freezer for later use.  You could also make homemade burger patties and the ketchup to go with them.

(DO NOT) Give them deli meats/sausages/hot dogs. They are made of processed meat which means you really don’t know what  kind of  meat is actually being used, and they are loaded with cholesterol-raising saturated fat; sodium; and cancer-linked sodium nitrite. See above for other options.

(DO NOT) Give packaged cookies/cakes/muffins/brownies/chips. Even if every kid in your child’s class does. Again, these are filled with trans fats, which give them their long shelf life. More alarmingly, however, they are filled with high fructose corn syrup which is a fancy name for sugar and toxic genetically modified organisms (GMOs)in disguise. If high fructose corn syrup is on the label, don’t buy it.

(DO NOT) Give sugary dairy products such as flavored yoghurt, yoghurt drinks or flavored milk. The little benefit these products may provide is far outweighed by the harmful effects of the hormones in the dairy itself and the incredible amount of added sugar, additives and artificial flavors. If you must give your child dairy, make it plain yoghurt or milk instead.

I am not implying that this will be an easy process. Kids are very picky eaters by nature and that can be quite problematic. But, they don’t know any better. It’s up to you to make the healthy decision for them and to implement it day by day until it becomes a habit. You play an important role as a guide and coach for your children as they make choices about eating.

By upgrading ingredients they are already familiar with one at a time, the process becomes that much easier. Take one or two ingredients that you can improve and implement that. Once you succeed in making that change you can add another healthy food to the mix and so on.

Be well!

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Dana Dinnawi

Dana Dinnawi is an Integrative Nutrition health coach specializing in empowering women to improve their health and family life. She received her training from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where she studied more than one hundred dietary theories and a variety of practical lifestyle coaching methods. She can be reached through her website and Facebook page.

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