Vary fillings and bread for a healthy lunch box
John Cradden on getting the package right
Yes, yes we know. Making packed school lunches for our children is a good idea. Yes, it can save us money: it can even reduce the amount of lunch money you have to give each of your children by up to €20-€30 a week.
Yes, it will go a long way to reassuring us that our kids are eating something healthy instead of heading out to the shop or even the chipper at lunchtime.
And yes, it can even taste nicer than some of the stuff they normally eat. So yes, it's hard to argue against the benefits of packed lunches. But it's such a pain. It may be 9pm on a Sunday evening and we're still trying to get through the papers before we realise there's little in the way of suitable ingredients for next week's school lunches, never mind bread.
Or it might be 7am in the morning and the last thing on our minds is making packed lunches when we're engaged in the military operation that is getting the kids dressed, fed (not to mention ourselves) and out to school in time.
But even if we've just done the weekly shop and the fridge and cupboards are freshly stocked, it can be hard to be inspired when it comes to deciding what to pack into the Tupperware.
And if we gain a reputation for only putting in the same old cheese sandwiches, we'll be inundated with complaints or worse, they'll not eat them at all, which means their school performance might suffer because they will be so hungry.
Another issue is that it's one thing to commit to making packed lunches every day, but it's another to make sure that the lunch is nutritious enough.
When it comes to packed lunches, many schools already have policies in place banning items like sweets and crisps in lunchboxes, which can make it easier for us to resist putting unhealthy treats in lunchboxes.
Unfortunately, according to a recent survey by researchers at the Consumer Association of Ireland's (CAI) Consumer Choice magazine, many seemingly "healthy" items marketed at children can contain just as much sugar, fat and salt as traditional treats like sweets, savoury snacks and sugary drinks, if not more.
For instance, Kellogg's Coco Pops Cereal and Milk Bars have 42g of sugar per 100g. According to the UK Food Standards Agency, more than 10g of sugar per 100g is too much.
If we look at saturated fat, more than 5g per 100g is regarded as too much, but Dairylea Dunkers Cracker and Cheese have 7.8g per 100g and Kraft Lunchables ham 'n' cheese crackers have 6.8g per 100g.
Until the EU introduces a "traffic-light" style food labelling system, the CAI says parents can take a proactive role by ignoring the health claims and child-friendly marketing and carefully read the nutrition label instead.
The simplest way to ensure that packed lunches are nutritious enough is by gradually putting in more fruit and veg, and reducing the amount of processed snack foods.
"If treats like crisps are included on a daily basis it can create habits which may be hard to break in future years," says the CAI.
"Money can be saved by buying regular products that are low in salt, sugar and saturated fat rather than buying the often dearer products that are aimed at children."
It's a hard job, but someone has to try and persuade kids that eating fruit and veg is cool as well as good for you.
Enter the Food Dudes. This is a healthy eating initiative for primary schools run by Bord Bia in conjunction with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
School children are first given the chance to watch a video of a group of slightly older children called the Food Dudes gain superpowers from eating fruit and vegetables.
"The children get rewarded with pens, stickers, pocket radios etc for initially tasting and then consuming fruit and vegetables," says programme director Michael Maloney.
"This influences children to taste them repeatedly and to develop a liking for them which leads to a lasting increase in consumption."
The programme has been running since 2007, and according to a recent independent study by UCD, teachers thought it very beneficial, while the parents surveyed reported that their kids liked it, with 94pc of them claiming they found their more fruit and veg at home and school after it. OK, so it's not as hard as we might think to get them to eat fruit and veg, but some of us worry that even after the initial flurry of enthusiasm, we may get lazy and just chop some cheese again.
Nutritionist Paula Mee suggests trying different sandwich fillings and lunch ideas on weekends and holidays, when you have more time and patience. "Let them try out new mustards, flavoured light mayo, relishes, etc and mixes of chicken and peppers or chopped grapes, tuna with sweetcorn and turkey and tomato and chilli relish," she says. "Once you know something has been a hit with them, write it down and stick it to the fridge."
According to Ms Mee, you ideally want five different types of protein and salad fillings.
"It's easy to forget so write ingredients or mixes into your diary or on a list where you can see it when you are running around the chicken at 7am trying to be divinely inspired."
Once you've done that, it's just a matter of varying the bread, says Ms Mee. "Always have pitta pockets and baps and rolls and bagels in the freezer so that the lunch looks different each day."