Nutrition has become something of a hot topic in recent years, with lots of (often conflicting) tips and advice available in magazines, on websites, blogs, and of course, in our ever-updating news feeds. Unsurprisingly, when it comes to preparing school lunches for their children, parents often feel pressurised to whip up impressive, diverse and healthy meals. However, according to dietician Sarah Keogh from nutritional consultants EatWell, there’s a lot to be said for keeping it simple.
“Parents are seeing pictures of very creative things online,” she begins, “and while they might be great ideas, a lot of us don’t have much time in the mornings. I find children actually like similar things – if you put too many different foods into a lunch box, it’s an extra thing for them to have to deal with. As they get older, they’re more interested in new foods, but for younger children, opening the lunch box to something familiar is almost a comfort.” For Sarah, a sandwich and piece of fruit is perfectly sufficient. “You want to give them a bit of energy,” she says, “that’s your bread; it can be wholegrain for fibre. Protein can be cheese, ham, other sliced meats, or hummus. You want to get fruit and veg in too, so opt for carrots, salad in a sandwich or an apple. You can definitely overthink it, making it very complicated, and I don’t think it needs to be.”
Though lots of parents fret about hidden calories or sugar, Sarah says this is often a contradictory concern. “If you go for a straightforward sandwich with salad and cheese, there’s nothing hidden in any of that. Most of the sugars we eat come from chocolate, soft drinks and sweets. I see people worried about sugar in yoghurts, which is a really small issue, but then they happily give their children chocolate biscuits later in the day. I’d rather kids were eating yoghurts, since 35% of Irish kids don’t get enough calcium.”
When it comes to older children, it can be difficult to dictate what they eat, but Sarah says it’s all about leading by example. “You can’t force teenagers to eat healthily. What you can do is educate, and that really starts as young as possible, with the foods they have at home. If children are used to having vegetables with every meal, they’re much more likely to choose them when they’re given the option. We talk about teaching nutrition in schools, and that is helpful, but the real influence is what turns up on the table at home.”