Back to School: How to Pack the Perfect School Lunch

Packing an interesting school lunch every day for your children can be difficult enough. But when you take diabetes into account, it’s even more important to get the mix of food right.

Putting together a nutritionally sound meal for a child with diabetes is not that different for someone without diabetes – it’s just a matter of being organised.

Children eat about 30 percent of their daily food intake at school so it’s important to consider this when thinking about what to pack. The main aim is to focus on healthy, fun foods that will help them manage their blood glucose levels and keep their energy up during the day.

How much food your child will need in his or her lunchbox depends on their age and their level of activity. If they do a lot of sport, it’s always a good idea to pack an extra snack or two.

Recommended daily intakes for children

  • Fruit 

    As a rule, children aged four to eight years old should aim for about one and half serves of fruit per day, with one serve being a medium orange or two small plums.

  • Dairy 

    One to two serves of dairy is optimal and may include two slices of cheese or ¾ cup of yoghurt.

  • Carbohydrates

    Four serves of carbohydrates such as cereals and grain are recommended daily, with one serve counting as one slice of bread, half a cup of cooked quinoa, or 2/3 of a cup of cereal.

  • Protein

    One and a half serves of protein is optimal, with one serve being 80g cooked lean chicken or turkey or two large eggs. The number of serves recommended for each food group increases with age and activity levels, therefore older children require larger meals and very active children require larger snacks too.

Healthy lunch guidelines

According to leading dietitian, Kate Save: “A healthy school lunch includes some calcium-rich dairy foods such as yoghurt, cheese or a chilled milk drink, as well as some other protein sources such as salmon, chicken, lean red meat or eggs. About a quarter of a cup is ideal. Whole grains are an important energy source and can include whole wheat bread, brown rice and a multigrain tortilla.”

Fruit and vegetables are important, especially so for those living with diabetes. Choosing a variety of colours is recommended such something orange (carrots), green (celery or cucumber) and red (cherry tomatoes).

In summer, send a frozen yoghurt or water and choose fruits that are in season to cut costs.

Kate Save also suggested including an extra carbohydrate-based snack just in case your child’s blood sugar dropped. These could include a box of sultanas, a banana, or a homemade oat-based slice – and always pack a refillable water bottle to help them stay hydrated.

A dietitian’s guide to packing a healthy school lunch

Not sure where to start? Kate Save has provided a 5-day guide to packing a nutritious school lunch for your littlies.

Monday:

  • Cubes of fresh fruit such as apple, grapes, watermelon and orange (up to one and a half serves)
  • Half a cup of wholegrain pasta mixed with corn, avocado and tomato
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • A cup of natural or fruit-flavoured yoghurt with a reduced sugar content

Tuesday:

  • A cup of berries such as blueberries and raspberries
  • A whole meal bread sandwich, wrap or roll filled with grilled chicken and salad (such as tomato, lettuce, cucumber and carrot)
  • Sticks of raw vegetables (for example celery, carrot, cucumber or capsicum) with a hummus dip (about half a cup of celery, and a quarter cup of dip)
  • Some plain crackers and cubes of cheese

Wednesday:

  • A fresh pear or apple
  • Half a cup of either brown rice/quinoa or pasta mixed with corn, grated carrots and chicken pieces
  • Try 2 tbsp. of creamed cheese with two celery sticks and sultanas
  • A tub of yoghurt

Thursday:

  • A handful of raw vegetables such as carrots or snow peas or a banana
  • Wholemeal wraps or rice paper rolls with chicken, avocado, carrot and cucumber
  • Cubes of fruit such as watermelon or rockmelon and orange
  • A small homemade oat cookie
  • Wholemeal pita crispbread served with either cream cheese or dips such as hummus, tzatziki or beetroot.

Friday:

  • Toasted wholemeal pita bread pieces with hummus, cream cheese or salsa
  • Roast sweet potato with couscous and top with a dollop of natural yoghurt or a salad such as sweet corn, tomatoes and cubes of cheese with chicken or tuna
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • A handful of dried fruit such as sultanas

Foods to avoid

Kate Save also noted that while cereal bars and biscuits are fine occasionally, it’s best to either make them yourself (so you know what is in them), or keep them as ‘treat’ foods rather than regular school lunch items. Other items to put on the no-go list include:

  • Soft drinks and juice – too high in sugar unless it is being used when blood sugars are low, use water with some fresh fruit for both hydration and vitamin C
  • Cakes, pastries and confectionary – no nutritional value and should only be used as a treat food
  • Fatty and salty meats such as strass and salami – they are high in saturated fats and sodium, whereas leaner meats such as chicken, turkey or lean roast beef are higher in protein and other nutrients to support growth
  • Dried fruit bars and straps which are low in fibre and high in sugar should be avoided – choose fresh fruit or homemade trail mixes using small amounts of dried fruit given the sugars are concentrated

Lastly, remember that all children are individuals with different activity levels and foods preferences so managing blood sugar levels will require a different approach for each individual, especially for those who are more likely to have hypos too.  Safety is paramount, but nutrition is the key to good health!

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