If you've ever found a soggy sandwich tucked away in your child's backpack, it's safe to assume they didn't find it all that appetizing.
But why not? Perhaps you're the long-suffering parent of a picky eater. Or maybe your child is on a hunger strike against your bland bologna on rye.
Every child has its preferences — and perhaps special dietary needs — and there are always school rules to follow, so packing the perfect lunch is a subjective affair. Still, you can come close with a nutritious, allergen-free, smartly packaged and even educational meal.
Here are some pointers.
What not to buy
Before you put the same old ingredients in your shopping cart, it may be worth thinking about the items that should be left on the shelf.
What about processed meats?
Highly processed deli-style luncheon meats are a staple for many parents, but many organizations — such as the Canadian Cancer Society — have long made the case for reducing the use of these sandwich stuffers.
Even those labelled "natural" may contain nitrate and nitrite, as CBC's Marketplace discovered by testing a popular brand marketed as a "natural selection" and its conventional counterpart.
Registered dietitian Shannon Crocker recommends home-cooked turkey, chicken and roast beef as better choices.
Increasingly, parents are being asked to put safety first, as about six per cent of Canadian children are affected by food allergies.
Health Canada offers many resources for those who want to learn about common allergens, and notes that the foods most likely to trigger severe reactions are peanuts, tree nuts, sesame seeds, soy, seafood, wheat, eggs, milk, mustard and sulphites.
Parents should always check whether their child's school bans these or other foods. The kids who are allergic to them could suffer everything from skin irritation to life-threatening reactions – and so anything that may trigger those reactions has no place in the perfect lunch.
From a nutritional standpoint, there are also a few items that should seldom or never go into children’s lunch boxes. They are often the brightly packaged but nutritionally deficient products that seem marketed directly to pint-sized shoppers.
Registered dietitian Beata Blajer, who conducts nutrition workshops at schools and daycares, cautions against juice boxes, soft drinks, candy, sugary cookies, salty snacks and white flour-based breads.
"They're convenient and kids like them, so parents just give in," said Blajer, who works at Southlake Regional Health Centre in Newmarket, Ont., and also runs a private practice.
So, what should we consider for the perfect lunchbox?
There are several variables that go into planning the centerpiece of your child's meal. Nutrition is key, but so too are portion size, food groups and variety.
A kid-friendly adaptation of Canada's Food Guide provides a few more specific ideas.
- Eric, seven, gets a sandwich made with a whole wheat pita. It contains 30 grams of chicken, shredded lettuce, tomato and a little bit of mayonnaise.
- David, 10, gets a hamburger. It contains a 90 grams of hamburger on a whole wheat hamburger bun, lettuce and tomato and fruit salad on the side.
- Isabelle, 12, gets a homemade whole wheat pita pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, diced chicken, mushrooms and peppers as well as a large kiwi on the side.
Of course, busy parents don't always have time to make home-cooked favourites in the morning, so dietitians suggest meal preparation is easier when you plan ahead.
"I make enough dinner so it will last us for lunch the next day," said Blajer, adding that one of her staples is whole grain pasta with chicken and real vegetables in the tomato sauce.
Paying attention to how much your child eats at the dinner table is also a good way of tailoring their portion size — especially because younger children often have small appetites.
It is also an opportune time to try out new meal ideas, as kids tend to reject unfamiliar food the first time they see it. Health Canada advises parents to be persistent.
"The more often children are exposed to new foods, the more likely they are to accept them," it notes in its Healthy Eating Guide for Children.
Also, remember to read labels, because many foods contain trace amounts of the allergens that can cause severe reactions. Avoid labels with warnings that say "may contain."
If your school's allergen policy restricts popular snack ingredients like peanut butter, Canada’s Food Guide recommends hummus or apple butter instead.
Blajer added that sunflower and hempseed butter could fill in for the often-banned peanut butter, but it's always important to double-check the safety of substitutes with the school in question.
Parents should avoid sweetened, low-nutrient beverages, like those with less than 100 per cent fruit juice, as well as lemonades, regular soft drinks, and sweetened coffees or teas.
Energy drinks and beverages with caffeine or caffeine-like ingredients — which the Canadian Medical Association Journal has even referred to as "drugs delivered as tasty syrups" — should also stay out of the lunchbox.
Instead of juice boxes and pop cans, Blajer recommends nixing fruit juice, or "sugar water," in favour of a smoothie made with real fruit.
She also suggests sending your kid to school with a water bottle in tow.
If that seems far too simple, consider that in places like Nantes, France, school lunch programs only serve water. Since 2005, vending machines with soft drinks have been banned in French schools.
Some of the drinks recommended by Health Canada include two per cent milk and low-sodium vegetable juice.
Time-crunched parents who would like to compare the sugar, salt and fat content in some of the most popular snack foods can check out our interactive chart.
Some snacks recommended by Health Canada include:
- A fruit cup or carrot sticks with dip for seven-year-old Eric
- A homemade muffin (with non-hydrogenated margarine) or an English muffin with cheese or 10 grapes for 10-year-old David
- An apple or 15 cherries or two cups of popcorn (with melted non-hydrogenated margarine) for 12-year-old Isabelle
If your kid loves cheesy chips, perhaps try cheese slices and whole-grain crackers. If chocolate and icing covered snack bars are a staple, maybe sub in a custom munchie mix instead.
"Kids can make up their own munchie mix. The kids really enjoy it because they can tailor it to themselves and they feel like they're having fun," said registered dietitian Shannon Crocker.
Crocker suggests ingredients like whole-wheat cereal squares, dried fruit, popcorn and seeds that aren't an allergy concern at your child's school.
Environmentally conscious parents, or those that have litterless lunch programs at their schools, may give extra thought to the reusable lunch boxes they send to school.
A recent study by the Lysol and the Global Hygiene Council suggests parents should disinfect containers each day, rinse them with warm water and then refrigerate them after preparation.
"A lunch box is supposed to keep kids' food safe, but in some cases, the lunch box can do the exact opposite," said Dr. Donald Low, the chief microbiologist at Toronto's Mount Sinai Hospital.
"If lunch boxes are not cleaned daily, small spills and crumbs can lead to bacteria growth and spread to ready-to-eat food, potentially causing children to get food poisoning or sick with diarrhea."
Researchers also recommend teaching kids thorough hand-washing techniques and how to wipe down their table before lunch.
Food for thought
Another thing you may want to consider for your child is a bit of food for thought, as the perfect meal in your household may contain the seeds of identity and family values.
Perhaps you are teaching your kids about local, organic or fairly traded foods.
Maybe you think it's important for your child to understand their meal in a global context — like whether what they are eating has roots in the culinary traditions of another country.
Toronto writer Andrea Curtis' recently published book What's for Lunch is all about how and what schoolchildren eat around the world.
She lists a typical meal for a Canadian child as a cheese sandwich, a package of mini-cookies, a small bag of baby carrots, a fruity drink and a small yogurt.
Although the writer says this meal is representative of what many Canadian children eat, she does not think it is necessarily an optimal meal.
"Canada is one of the few developed nations in the world that doesn’t offer a national nutrition program for school-age children," she notes, adding that parents have a lot on their plate when planning meals.
What if your child lived elsewhere?
CBC News asked Curtis to transport Health Canada’s Eric, David and Isabelle to three other countries featured in her book — an opportunity to consider a world full of things school aged children might eat. Here's what she had to say:
- "If seven-year-old Eric lived in France, he'd enjoy a four-course meal at lunch made by a trained chef. There’s a choice of salad, a main dish of lean meat — chicken or fish — with vegetables, a cheese course and dessert of fresh fruit. The meal would be served on heated ceramic plates and he'd be expected to use real cutlery. He would have a minimum of 30 to 45 minutes to eat his lunch with his classmates."
- "If David was lucky enough to live in Brazil, he’d likely be one of the 47 million kids who are offered a free school meal everyday. For many children in this nation, it's their main meal of the day. For lunch, there's always beans and rice, plus grilled meat and vegetables (maybe kale or potatoes), as well as fresh fruit or juice. By law, 30 per cent of school food must be bought locally. As a result, Brazilian kids enjoy lots of the fresh and delicious fruit such as pineapple and bananas."
- "If 12-year-old Isabelle lived and went to school (many girls still do not) in some of the most war-torn parts of Afghanistan, she might be offered a package of biscuits from the World Food Program at school lunch. A cross between cookies and crackers, they're made of wheat and fortified with vitamins, minerals and protein. Each package has about 10-15 biscuits inside. They offer Isabelle about 450 calories—the energy equivalent of a skinless chicken breast with two cups of broccoli. If she goes to school consistently (a minimum of 22 days a month), she might also receive a tin of cooking oil to take home to be used by her family. It's offered by the WFP as extra incentive for families to send their daughters to school."
To hear more about schoolchildren's meals around the world, listen to Curtis' interview about What's for Lunch: How Schoolchildren Eat Around the World on CBC Toronto's Metro Morning show.