FOOD

How To Make A Healthy Bento School Lunch Box

So good adults will want them, too.

11/08/2017 7:09 AM AEST | Updated 11/08/2017 7:15 AM AEST

Hands up if your child's lunch box or schoolbag routinely comes home with a bruised (or squished) banana, slightly nibbled carrot or a half-eaten salad sandwich.

Getting your child to eat healthy at school can be tough, but there's an easy way to encourage kids to eat vegetables and healthy protein -- bento-style lunch boxes.

Based on the packed meal common in Japanese cuisine, bento lunch boxes involve filling compartments with different food elements. The bento lunch boxes look colourful, varied and incredibly appealing to kids, and are the perfect way to help teach children healthy eating habits.

There is an art to creating a balanced bento lunch box, however. To get all the tips and tricks, HuffPost Australia spoke to Mandy Sacher, paediatric nutritionist and found and author of Wholesome Child.

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Why is children's nutrition so important?

"Children's nutrition is basically critical," Sacher told HuffPost Australia. "There's a lot of focus and attention given to adults about changing their diet, but if we don't start implementing healthy eating habits from a young age, then we're not going to reap all the benefits.

"Obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension are all things we are seeing in children, which has never been seen before like it is now."

However, eating is a lot more than just putting food in your mouth.

"There's a behavioural element and psychological element, and we need to train children to have healthy eating behaviours. It's about fostering a healthy relationship towards foods -- a genuine enjoyment."

How to make a healthy bento lunch box

"School lunch boxes are really important. School-aged children have nutritional demands which need to be met at school to be able to concentrate and have energy to sustain them during the day," Sacher said.

"The ideal ratio in a lunch box is a serve of quality protein, a slow-release carbohydrate, 2-3 vegetables, one serve of a healthy fat and a calcium-rich food. Fruit is best included as a morning or afternoon snack."

Here are six tips for making a healthy bento lunch box.

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1. Create a menu plan with the kids

Although both adults and children like food surprises (Sunday morning pancakes, anyone?), it's important for kids to have a say in what's in their lunch box.

"Bento boxes are basically a child's mezze platter, so what I advise parents to do is sit with their children (if they're over four or five) and come up with their own menu plan," Sacher said.

"What the parents have to teach their children is they can't have the same food every day.

"They can start to create their own lunch boxes, so when they open it up and perhaps feel upset over what's in it, the parent can refer back to the menu planner they have created. It's shifting the responsibility to the child and helps to dissipate the anger."

2. Aim for variety and colour

Just like you wouldn't want the exact same lunch and snack every day of the week, neither will your children. Humans are visual eaters, so keep this in mind when building a lunch box, and aim for variety and colours.

"The other problem with school lunch boxes is lack of variety, so children are getting the same foods day in, day out," Sacher said.

"Rather than looking at one food as 'bad' or 'good', aim for variety. With variety comes more nutrients and opportunity for nutritious foods."

However, if your child enjoys one particular food, which may not be the healthiest choice, include it in their bento box -- along with healthy foods.

"The reason why I love bento-style lunch boxes is because, even if your child has a favourite food that you are struggling to swap out, you can start to put in new, healthy foods around that favourite food.

"If a child is having something every single day, then potentially it can have a negative impact on their health. But if they're having a lot of variety, then that jam sandwich occasionally is not going to be as relevant to their health as if they are eating it every day."

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Opt for darker whole grain varieties of bread, crispbread and pasta.

3. Fill 1-2 compartments with vegetables

This tip is easier said than done, but with enough encouragement and experimenting, children can learn to enjoy vegetables.

"The other thing that's lacking in children's lunch boxes is vegetables," Sacher explained.

"From a young age, get children to enjoy more vegetables in their diets. It's one of those food groups that is tricky for children, but if we can encourage them to eat vegetables in their mid-morning snacks, lunch box and afternoon snack, they can become more accepting of them."

And if your child comes home with uneaten vegetables, avoid getting angry or giving up. Persistence is key.

"If a child's struggling with maths, we don't say 'forget maths, it's not that important'. It's the same with encouraging children to eat healthy, nutritious foods -- we just don't give up, we continue to put it into the lunch box and use creative ways."

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Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to changing children's eating habits.

So, how do we present vegetables in creative ways which will actually be eaten?

"If your child wants to eat one type of sandwich every single day, start by filling the other compartment in the bento box," Sacher said.

"To increase veggies intake in the lunch box, fill 1-2 of the bento compartments with vegetables. Also boost other choices with veggies such as healthy sweet potato pizzas, savoury vegetable scrolls, vegetable muffins, beef and veggie meatballs in a wrap -- these finger foods are easy to eat and children love them."

You can also include vegetable sticks, baked vegetables (sweet potato wedges and baked pumpkin), steamed vegetables (for children who are already used to vegetables), pasta sauce with vegetables, and dips (nut-free pesto, guacamole with lemon juice, hummus, babaganoush, tzatziki).

"It's still important to offer these vegetables in their visible form," Sacher said.

"If you put vegetables into a dish which goes into their lunch box, I would still encourage parents to put carrot, cucumber or capsicum sticks in the lunch box so the child is aware that vegetables are part of lunch. It's about continual exposure and setting up those healthy expectations at meal times."

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Research has shown that an efficient way to increase kids' daily vegetable consumption is to serve them whole.

4. Add more healthy protein

The nutrient protein is considered to be the 'building block' of our bodies and is therefore an essential part of our diets.

"What we see in children's lunch boxes typically lacks protein -- there's a lot of Vegemite, butter or jam sandwiches," Sacher said.

"If we can't get the protein on the sandwich itself or give a protein-rich meal like a chicken pasta salad or meatballs, you can put the protein into one of those compartments -- things like homemade seeded muesli bars, cut up leftover roast chicken or lamb, yoghurt, or tzatziki."

When it comes to protein, Sacher suggests avoiding the following types of processed meats.

"Lots of deli meats and chicken slices are too high in sodium for children and contain nitrates and nitrites."

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Make a quick chicken pasta salad using leftover roast chicken.

5. Watch out for hidden sugars

"What's important is coming back to the amount of sugar which is going into the lunch box," Sacher said.

"It's been shown that there can be up to 40 teaspoons of sugar in a child's lunch box. That's derived not from cake, biscuits and soda, but from seemingly healthy foods, such as squeezie yoghurt, '100 percent fruit' fruit straps, commercial muesli bars, fruit juice, a blueberry muffin, sports drinks, banana bread, sesame snaps and sultanas."

6. Avoid packaged foods where possible

Labels on food products can be extremely misleading -- even on kids' products -- with foods like yoghurt, muesli bars and teething rusks full of hidden sugars and salt.

"One of the key things we need to look at in children's lunch boxes is increasing protein and vegetables, decreasing refined sugars and watching the sodium levels," Sacher said.

"When you look at the packaging it says it's really healthy, so parents are unsuspecting of these foods, but if we actually break down the ingredients lists and read the nutritional panel, there's hidden sugars, salt and preservatives. It's not the ideal choice for children.

"It's not just parents we need to focus on as it's not always their role to be a food detective. We as parents want to see food which is marketed and packaged as a healthy choice truly being a healthy choice."

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Flavour plain yoghurt with mashed berries and a touch of maple syrup.

Take small steps

It's important to note that these changes can, and most times should, occur over time. Slow and steady wins the race when it comes to making a massive difference and shaping a child's lifelong eating habits.

"If a parent decides it's time to revamp their child's lunch box, it's best to take gradual steps and remember that small changes and implementing 1-2 healthy swaps can make a massive difference," Sacher told HuffPost Australia.

"Simple swaps include swapping to a whole grain or sourdough bread, swapping a squeezie yoghurt for natural yoghurt sweetened with fresh fruit (or one teaspoon of raw honey or pure maple syrup), and changing white pasta to wholemeal pasta.

"Small changes can big a big difference, it's not an all-or-nothing approach when it comes to kids' health."

Simple lunch box swaps

  • Swap sultanas for: grapes
  • Swap sweet popcorn for: plain or lightly salted popcorn
  • Swap squeezie yoghurt for: reusable pouches or small reusable container filled with natural yoghurt sweetened with a teaspoon maple syrup or honey
  • Swap chocolate milk for: half chocolate milk, half plain milk
  • Swap fruit juice for: diluted fruit juice with one-quarter juice and three-quarters water
  • Swap sports drinks for: flavoured coconut water
  • Swap jam or honey sandwiches for: raw honey mixed with school-friendly sunflower butter or tahini

Wholesome Child by Mandy Sacher is available online now and in bookstores nationally from September 1.

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