Thinking outside the (lunch) box

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I can’t be the only mum who’s felt a pang of guilt recently when giving my kids white rice *gasp*.  But, why should I feel guilty giving my kids rice? Rice is healthy, right? That depends which parenting blog you’re reading.

These days, it’s hard to know exactly what we should be feeding our kids for lunch. For expat mums now living in a country where a hot lunch is standard, there’s even more to think about.

Making the right kind of meals for our children shouldn’t be hard! At Playtimes, we’ve set out to cut through the hype and get back to basics. Which modern-day myths should we be ignoring when it comes to family nutrition? What are the ‘rules’ for a healthy lunch? And what are kids eating at Hong Kong schools where lunch is catered?

Why lunch matters

In short: Lunch is important. Getting it right will make a big difference to your child’s afternoon.

We all know how important breakfast is for our kids and ourselves – breakfast kick-starts our day. Lunch then becomes the pinnacle of recharging, especially for busy, growing kids. When our kids are very little, they spend so much energy they often need to snack through the morning, making lunch important but not make-or-break.

As they get older and head to school, snack time is limited and the focus on lunch as a refuelling opportunity becomes more distinct. For school-aged children, lunch is pivotal for a productive afternoon of learning – it will determine their attention span and often their attitude. So what is the ideal lunch to help our children refuel?

Vital ingredients

“The lunch that doesn’t get eaten isn’t a good lunch,” is the response from Tracy Simaika, a Canadian registered dietitian and nutritionist practising here in Hong Kong, when I asked her what we should be feeding our children.

And this is the riddle I began to unravel. A good lunch is one that is both eaten and nutritious – not always an easy combo. But Martin Lorrentsson from Eat Right, a restaurant and meal service dedicated to healthy eating, suggests us mums shouldn’t over-think it. “Create a lunch your kids will eat and will refuel them,” he says. “You can always make up the difference at night.” Martin suggests creating healthy lunches from food they love to eat and using dinner to explore new foods.

Balance and variety are the pillars of family nutrition, shares Tracy. A well-balanced diet includes fruit and vegetables, protein, fat, and whole grains. You might not get every one of those things in every meal, but you need to provide variety across the day.

Lunch hour is a busy, distracting social occasion, so for packed lunches, finger foods are the way to go. If they’re very busy and only eating a small quantity, you want to get smaller portions of energy-dense foods that will keep them fuller for longer (see Tracy’s tips for what to include in a nutritious lunchbox on p49).

Tracy encourages avoiding pre-packaged foods. “Anything that you’re making for them that comes from real food is of benefit. You’re doing your child a huge favour. It can feel tiring some days, but you really are setting them up for good nutrition for life.”

Releasing the pressure

What about those kids who aren’t big eaters or are picky eaters? “Forcing it never works. Kids do well when they feel the pressure is off,” says Tracy. She says that there will always be kids who eat more and kids who eat less; most kids will eat what they need to eat. Some days they’ll eat the whole fridge and sometimes they’ll eat nothing.

Martin from Eat Right’s belief in taking the pressure off and being realistic aligns with Tracy’s viewpoint. “At lunch, feed kids what they want – you can’t encourage eating when you’re not there. If they like sandwiches, send them to school with a variety of what you know they’ll eat in that format.”

What about movements like eating Paleo or gluten-free? “There is a movement for Paleo, but this is not the best choice for infants and young children,” says Tracy. “If you’re an adult and you choose to do this, that’s fine, but be careful in extending this decision to your kids, as their nutritional needs are different from your own. Avoiding gluten can be a difficult and time-consuming undertaking that is often unnecessary unless a medical professional has found cause to do so.”

Martin agrees. “I’m not saying it’s wrong or right, but it’s not necessary for a five- to 10-year-old. The Paleo diet gives a lot of protein. Kids should eat all kinds of foods. We’re living in the wrong part of the world to not eat rice! Five- to 10-year-olds should be trying to eat as many different foods as they can.”


Lunch at school

Reading the words ‘school lunches’ can bring Oliver Twist’s gruel to mind, but these days, many school lunches can be more Jamie Oliver than Oliver Twist! One Hong Kong company providing lunches at many schools across the city is Chartwells. Francis O’Grady, operations manager, says that Chartwells aims to provide wholesome, safe food that kids want to eat, made from ingredients from reputable, certified sources.

“The old tuckshop model is full of horrible food,” says O’Grady. “Once you set up a kitchen in the school and get rid of that bad food, the change in the afternoon is tangible. The attention spans are longer and the kids are happier,” he says.

School lunches can also teach kids about healthy and unhealthy options. In Chartwell’s menus, items are colour coded as very healthy (green), fairly healthy (amber), and a ‘sometimes’ option (red). The red menu items only appear once or twice a week, to show kids they can treat themselves, but only every now and then. There are other educational opportunities, too – some children have created items for the menu, and others have become involved in additional food drives to help redistribute leftover food to those in need.

So there you have it – lunch laid bare. Whether your child has a packed lunch, a freshly delivered lunch, or a school catered lunch, the experts tell us that their midday meal is an important daily refuelling station for our kids. As parents, our job is to make available nutrient-dense foods we know our kids will eat, and leave the guesswork and experimentation for less busy times.

Packing a punch 
Dietitian and nutritionist Tracy Simaika suggests the following easy-to-eat, wholesome foods for busy kids’ lunch boxes:

  • Bite-sized veggies: cherry tomatoes, cut up carrots and cucumber. Pairing these with a high-protein dip like hummus is ideal
  • Sandwiches cut into triangles or with fun cookie cutter shapes
  • Small snacks like cubes of cheese or frozen halved grapes
  • Cut up fruit. If you don’t cut up fruit, it will likely come home. Try sending apple wedges with peanut butter (if it is allowed in your child’s school) for a tasty twist
  • Mixes – dried fruits, seeds and nuts (if they are allowed in your child’s school) are packed with vitamins and fibre. Try creating a healthy trail mix with your child’s favourites
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