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How to pack the best lunch for your kids in five easy steps

Not up to the daily dilemma of what to pack your little ones for lunch? Beef up your children’s lunch boxes with these quick tips.

Back to school means back to packing daily lunches for many parents, including Lerato Mogorosi.

The Pretoria mother of three says, as much as she prefers to pack healthy food for her children, convenience and affordability have a significant influence on her choices.

“Healthy food such as fruits is a bit more expensive than ready-made snacks so, in some instances, I find myself opting for the cheaper option,” she says.

Facing the same predicament as Mogorosi? Fear not.

Ayanda Gumede is a nutritionist and owner of Healthful Living, a health and wellness consulting company, and Jessica Byrne is a registered dietician and spokesperson for the  Association for Dietetics in South Africa.

As children head back to school, Gumede and Byrne team up to give you a quick guide to better lunches.

1. Keep your children’s energy levels up with whole grains: Gumede says whole-grain carbohydrates are a good source of nutrients that provide a sustained source of energy. They are also high in fibre, which helps to keep your children’s bowel movements regular. Fibre also helps to keep them fuller for longer.

Look out for bread made from whole wheat and avoid white bread, which is made with refined grains, which have been milled. It extends the shelf life of products made with these grains, but it also removes nutrients, including fibre, the Mayo Clinic warns.

The United States research organisation says that breads, crackers and pastries made with refined grains are likely to lead to spikes in blood sugar levels and, because they do not keep blood sugar levels steady, are likely to leave your children feeling hungry soon after eating.

Low-cost options: Whole-wheat bread and pasta, or home-made wraps, as well as sweet potato and butternut.

2. Not all fats are equal: Healthy fats and unsaturated fats are vital for good health and are found in plant oils, nuts, seeds and fatty fish. They provide energy, protect organs and help with healthy brain function.

Research conducted among about 500 pupils in the United Kingdom found that children with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids, such as those found in fish and nut oils, performed better in reading and memory tests than their peers with lower levels of this type of healthy fat in their blood, according to a 2013 study published in the journal Plos One.

Gumede suggests you use avocado as a spread on bread instead of margarine to work in extra good fats.

Low-cost options: Home-made mayonnaise using canola or olive oil, unsalted peanuts, avocado with lemon juice, nut butters such as peanut butter without added sugar, and olive paste.

3. Pack in the protein: Gumede says protein is crucial for the development of, for instance, a child’s muscles, nails and organs. Protein also provides sustained energy.

According to a 2012 study published in British Journal of Nutrition, a high-protein diet increases metabolism and provides energy that lasts longer than energy from carbohydrates.

Looking for sources of good protein? Byrne recommends chicken breast, lean mince and oily fish such as sardines and salmon. You can also try legumes or dairy products such as milk, unsweetened yoghurt and reduced-fat cottage cheese as protein sources. Try to keep away from processed meats such as polony and cured meats as these are high in salt.

Low-cost options: Free-range eggs, sardines, peanut butter, beans and lentils.

4. Keep them hydrated: Gumede says water is best for keeping your children hydrated and healthy. You can add lemon, mint, kiwi fruit or strawberries to the water to make it more appealing.

“By adding special ingredients into your child’s water like lemon, rooibos or fruit, you increase the nutrient value of the water,” says Gumede.

Another option is home-made iced tea, using rooibos tea and lemon for a great flavour.

Gumede also advises parents to buy a good water bottle, made without bisphenol A (BPA), for their children.

American researchers recently proposed that BPA be classified as a carcinogen after a review of available research on the chemical’s effects. In a study published this month in the journal Reproductive Toxicology, researchers argue that BPA could be “reasonably anticipated” to cause cancer in humans based on available research. Scientists said the chemical is probably linked to increased risk of prostate and breast cancer in particular.

By encouraging your children to drink water there is also the added benefit of weaning them off sugar-laden fizzy drinks and juices.

2013 study published in the British Medical Journal reviewed existing evidence on sugar and weight gain. The meta-analysis of more than 60 studies found consistent evidence that decreasing sugar intake leads to weight loss. This report also confirmed links between children’s intake of sugar-sweetened beverages and their risk of becoming overweight.

Byrne suggests that parents can freeze water in bottles overnight for children to have ice-cold water during the day.

5. Have fun with fruit and vegetables: Gumede says fruit and vegetables contain vitamins and minerals that are essential to help meet a child’s dietary requirements. Vegetables such as raw carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes and cucumber slices make good snacks.

In its healthy eating guide, the department of health says juices are also no replacement for fresh fruit and vegetables. The department warns that juices lack fibre and are often high in sugar, or salt, in the case of vegetable juice.

Low-cost options: Both Gumede and Byrne advise parents to buy fruit and vegetables that are in season, when they are cheaper. For example, grapes, peaches, plums and watermelon are currently in season.

Nelisiwe Msomi was a health reporter at Bhekisisa.