Tuesday, January 28, 2014

12 Easy, healthy lunchbox ideas

I'm very lucky at the moment. I don't have to pack lunchboxes for my girls because their preschool feeds them a hot lunch, as well as morning and afternoon tea.

Still, it wasn't long ago that L was going to Playcentre two days a week and Kindergarten two days a week, so I was packing four packed lunches a week. I remember it well.

It was busy. Mornings were go, go, go. I didn't have time to think about what to pack in her lunchbox then. I had to have it planned out before.

Because I wanted to feed her nourishing, tasty food that she would enjoy, I would bake in bulk on weekends or in the evening, and then freeze items so I could pull one out every few days over the coming weeks to quickly fill a lunchbox, while offering L a variety of foods to enjoy.

To me a healthy lunch is one full of real food and real ingredients. Ideally it should include protein to give long-lasting energy and feed those growing muscles. It also needs a good balance of fresh enzyme-rich foods, carbohydrates and healthy fats.

In our lunch boxes, I tried to limit the amount of refined white sugar, refined white flour, hydrogenated oils, trans-fats, skim milk powder, MSG, preservatives, fake colours and flavours.

Today I wanted to share with you 12 easy and healthy lunchbox fillers that worked for us.

1. Homemade yoghurt with frozen blueberries 
We have an EasiYo maker which I use to make Greek yoghurt (check out my frugal yoghurt-making tips here).

Natural Greek yoghurt is a good source of protein, fat and probiotics.

Blueberries are rich in antioxidants, making them good for brain function and for fighting free-radical damage around the body.

For the girls’ lunches I'd scoop a few tablespoons of yoghurt into a pottle and sprinkle frozen blueberries over the top to keep the yoghurt cool and add a bit of natural sweetness and flavour. By the time morning tea came around, the blueberries would have melted and turned the yoghurt a nice pink colour.

2. Frozen fruit desserts
Homemade strawberry ice cream.
I often make smoothies for the girls as a snack when we’re at home. If there’s quite a bit left over, I'd mix it with a little gelatine dissolved in boiling water and freeze it in small pottles in the freezer.

I've also been known to make Strawberry ice cream and Flu-fighting feijoa jelly and freeze those in small containers for lunchbox fillers.

These are easy to pull out for lunches and because of the gelatine, will hold their form even as they melt in the lunchboxes.

Frozen desserts also work like a chiller pad, helping to keep other things cool and making it easier to include foods like meat, cheese and chopped fruit.

3. Mini fruit crumbles

In individual silicone muffin molds or ceramic ramekins, make and bake several mini fruit crumbles. Use whatever fruit is falling from the trees at the time, like feijoas, plums or apples, to make this a really frugal snack.

Freeze the crumbles in their molds and cover with baking paper secured with a rubber band to hold it all together.

Just like the other frozen desserts, these will act like a chiller pad in the lunchbox, and will slowly defrost themselves enough to eat. Remember to include a teaspoon with them.

4. Chopped or whole fruit and vegetables 
Vegetable sticks and queso
It’s stating the obvious but a container offering one or two of the following will help get fresh fruit and vegetables with all their lovely antioxidants into your child.

For vegetables try cherry tomatoes, avocado slices, cucumber pieces, carrot sticks, celery sticks, capsicum slices, frozen peas, beans, broccoli florets or cauliflower popcorn.

Popular fruit options with my girls are apples, nectarines, grapes, watermelon, strawberries, blueberries, oranges, mandarins and pineapple.

Keep offering vegetables, even if your children don't seem to eat them. At least they will visually see what a well-rounded meal looks like and they might eventually give something a go.

Dips like hummus, homemade almond butter or queso contain protein and can help make vegetables more appealing to eat. Pack a chiller pad or frozen dessert with these to keep them fresh.

5. Popcorn
It’s quick and easy to cook up a pot of organic* popcorn on the stove in the morning. I like to cook mine in butter and add Himalayan rock salt and Braggs Nutrional Yeast (affiliate link) for extra minerals and flavour.

The popcorn fills the salty/savoury carbohydrate requirement of the lunchbox, and I’m happy to include it because I know it only has the four ingredients – popcorn, butter, natural salt and nutrional yeast – which are all nutritious and delicious. (*The main reason I buy organic popcorn is to ensure it’s not genetically modified.)

6. Seeds, nuts and dried fruit
Making dried apple rings.
Seeds and nuts are also fun savoury treats and there are a lot of options to choose from like sunflower and pumpkin seeds, pistachios, cashews, peanuts, almonds, walnuts, brazil nuts, hazelnuts and macadamias. Look out for nuts on special and store them in the freezer to prevent the oil from going rancid.

These are nice mixed with a selection of dried fruit, like cranberries, goji berries, raisins, sultanas or even home-made dried apple rings.

7. Boiled eggs
Here's an easy protein source for you. Simply boil eggs while you're making dinner, then store them in the fridge until you're ready to fill your lunchboxes in the morning.

If you're children are capable of peeling an egg themselves, leave them in their shell to keep them fresh. Otherwise, peel them first and lightly salt to help preserve them. Pack with a chiller pad.

8. Home baking 
Zucchini chocolate chip cookies.

Soaked oat and fruit muffins are very tasty and provide longer lasting energy than your regular white flour muffin.

Banana bread or raisin bread are nice with butter and jam or honey.

Grain-free chocolate brownies pack a big nutritional punch and the kids love their chocolatey flavour.

Zucchini-infused treats like zucchini chocolate cake and zucchini chocolate chip cookies sneak vegetables into home baking and add a pleasant moistness.

Truffles look great and can be nutrient-dense little treats depending on what you put in them. These Coconut Cocoa Date Balls and Cookie Dough Bites are both good recipes.

All of these home-made sweet treats include some form of protein, fat and carbohydrates. They can all be stored in the freezer to pull out over the course of several weeks. That way, your childrens' lunchboxes will be filled with variety to keep them interesting.

9. Homemade crackers with toppings
Only the good stuff in these homemade Sesame and Oat crackers. Make up a big batch and store them in an airtight container so they will stay fresh for several weeks. These are more fiddly to make than popcorn, so just aim to make one batch a term and save your sanity.

I like to top my kids' crackers with cheese or homemade almond butter, for the extra protein.

10. Kebab sticks 
Thread ham or preservative-free luncheon on a skewer alternated with cheese cubes, cherry tomatoes and pineapple chunks for a protein punch the kids will love. Pack a chiller pad or frozen dessert in the lunchbox to keep the meat and cheese cool.

11. Tortilla rollups 
Spread various toppings on a homemade tortilla, roll it into a log and slice at three centimetre intervals to make yummy, savoury rollups. Toppings could be as simple as peanut butter and honey, or as extravagant as hummus, grated cheese, ham/leftover roast chicken, grated carrot and lettuce.

12. Pull-apart cheesey scrolls 
Mediterranean Scrolls.
Admittedly these pull-apart cheesey scrolls do contain white flour, but they’re a fun alternative to sandwiches and buns, and variety is the spice of a good lunchbox.

You can mix up the fillings to suit your child’s taste. Ham, cheese and pineapple go down well, but my girls also enjoy the more gourmet version I make filled with cream cheese, sundried tomato, basil pesto and sunflower seeds.

I make these in the evening after dinner when we have leftover mashed potatoes.

So there you have it. 12 lunchbox ideas to set you on your way this new school year.

What other lunchbox fillers have you had great success with? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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