It’s difficult coming up with a variety of foods that your children even like sometimes so when there are constraints based on food allergies and intolerance where can we look for inspiration? Well, we asked the UK’s leading Lunchbox Expert, Jenny Tschiesche for some of her pearls of wisdom. Jenny is a nutrition consultant who set up LunchboxDoctor.com to advise parents, teachers and children on putting together healthy packed lunches that meet your children’s taste preferences whilst being nutritious and delicious.
We asked Jenny how to construct a balanced lunchbox and she told us it is as simple as playing ‘Lunchbox Bingo’. That means ensuring that your child’s lunchbox has each of the main nutritional food groups represented. These 6 nutritional food groups are:
- Carbohydrate –a group of foods that include pasta, rice, bread, potatoes, oats and some lesser known gluten-free foods such as quinoa and buckwheat which can also be considered a protein source (a bonus!). Generally this is one of the easiest groups in which to find something your child likes.
- Protein – The protein group of foods includes fish, eggs, chicken, turkey, ham, beef, sausages, beans, chickpeas, lentils, cheese, yogurt as well as seeds and nuts. Lots of children enjoy processed meat but we should try and keep consumption of ham, bacon and sausages to a minimum, especially when they contain nitrates. Other meats, pulses (legumes) and seeds can all provide good protein values though.
- Calcium – The best sources of calcium are not only dairy based foods, as we have been led to believe. Whilst dairy foods such as cheese, yogurt and milk are rich in calcium there are other calcium-rich foods too. These include seeds, in particular sesame seeds, nuts and dark green vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
- Fruit – These could include fresh, frozen, canned or dried fruits and again most children like one or more types of fruit so it is one of the easier groups to include.
- Vegetables – not the easiest to include in a lunchbox for some fussy eaters but crisp salad vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers and celery with healthy dips, vegetables in soups and vegetables in both sweet and savoury baking are all possible ideas to include these.
- A drink – Whilst water is best, there’s a host of other options for both allergenic and non-allergenic children that provide hydration and some nutrient input i.e. fortified milks, coconut water, 100% fruit juices and smoothies.
If you have a child with a food allergy or intolerance you might like to think about the most nutritious alternatives to the main food groups. Here are some ideas.
Although dairy foods are not a necessary part of a balanced diet, in western society we rely so heavily upon them that if we simply take out dairy milk and cheese and replace it with non-dairy milk and cheese we may be doing our children’s health a disservice. In fact there are many natural foods very rich in calcium, Vitamin D and magnesium, which might otherwise be deficient that can be included in a lunch box. Here are some ideas:
- Canned salmon and cucumber sandwiches
- Tofu, pepper and tomato kebabs
- Green smoothies with kale or spinach (10g flaxseeds/linseeds, 60g freshly rinsed baby spinach, 50g frozen mango, 1 banana frozen in ¼’s, 150g milk of choice (almond, rice, oat, dairy)
- Raw broccoli spears with a healthy dip.
- Sesame seed bars
- Seeds and dried fruit trail mix
- Hummus with carrots and cucumbers
Egg is used in a lot of processed foods as a binder. As for home-made foods, eggs tend to be used in baking sweet and savory (muffins and quiches), also to bind fish cakes and burgers as well as to thicken sauces. Avoiding eggs can be easier if you prepare home-made foods and use alternatives to eggs in traditional recipes. You just need to choose your alternative carefully depending on what the food is. Here are some alternatives to substitute one egg:
- To bind fish cakes – ¼ cup mashed potato
- In baked sweet foods – ½ mashed banana or ¼ cup apple puree. If you want a lighter texture and you’re using mashed/pureed fruit as an egg substitute, add an extra 1/2 tsp. baking powder.
- For white or cheese sauces use – 2 tbsp arrowroot mixed with 2 tbsp water
- In baking savory foods – 1 TBS flax seeds plus 3 TBS warm water – let sit for 10 minutes. If you want the baked good to be lighter and fluffier, add a ½ tsp baking powder.
Here are some egg-free lunchbox suggestions:
- Make coleslaw with a vinaigrette instead of a mayonnaise base. Try using other shredded veggies instead of just cabbage.
- Use oil, yogurt or avocado to bind canned tuna or salmon with corn or cucumbers and dill for a sandwich filler.
- Egg-free muffins – both sweet and savory using the above alternatives to eggs. Add seeds or nuts for extra protein.
- Fish cakes made with mashed potatoes and peas.
Of all food allergies this is the one, where children are concerned, gets the most press. It is now suffered by such a large number of children that a ban on nuts in schools is common-place. Even if your child doesn’t suffer from a nut allergy it is likely that they will not be able to have nuts or related products in their lunchbox.
Nuts provide some health-giving nutrients such as omega 3 fats, protein, antioxidants and a multitude of vitamins and minerals. A diet without nuts doesn’t have to be a diet without these nutrients however. Seeds are a great alternative and can be substituted for nuts in most recipes – as can seed butter (tahini/sesame seed butter, sunflower seed butter, pumpkin seed butter).
Great lunchbox foods that can be made or used in place of nuts include:
- Seeds and seed bars, trail mix and muffins
- Sunflower seed butter with apples or carrots
- Ground sunflower seeds in place of ground almonds in baked products.
- Avocados in sandwiches, salads, dips and in smoothies too.
- Olives – a source of good fats and antioxidants too.
- Dried fruit – full of nutrients but sugary too, so be careful not to overdo it.
Wheat Allergy, Gluten Intolerance or Coeliac Disease
The good news is that there are now dozens of gluten-free options available for lunchboxes. However, the bad news is that by simply replacing products that would normally contain gluten with a gluten-free version such as with bread, wraps, bagels or pasta you are often choosing foods with little fiber or protein and a lot of added sugar i.e. refined carbohydrates which provide an energy surge followed by an energy slump.
So, what are the alternatives?
In order to get a good quality and natural alternative gluten-free carbohydrate portion into your child’s lunchbox think about these ideas:
- Buckwheat or millet pancakes, muffins and cupcakes
- Quinoa salad
- Brown rice cakes
- Healthy “oat”meal cookies – use oats or quinoa flakes
- New potatoes in their skins (where the fiber is) with a vinaigrette or mayonnaise for a cold salad. Try the same with sweet potatoes.
- GMO-free or organic corn tortillas.
If you opt for foods that are gluten-free but lack fiber such as polenta, corn products and white rice (all fine to use in moderation and better than a lot of gluten-free products) then you can make up for these nutrients in the other portions of the lunchbox such as:
- Tuna salad.
- Chicken or turkey slices or drumsticks.
- Dried fruit, cocoa/cacao (raw nibs are best) and molasses or honey in baked products.
Finally, here is a RECIPE for a Moist Banana Cake free from gluten, dairy, egg and nuts
Makes 12 servings
Preheat oven to 180°C (350°F)
20cm round spring form baking pan with greaseproof paper to line.
200g (7oz) buckwheat flour
100g (3 ½ oz) unrefined light muscavado or honey or maple syrup
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
60g (2oz) apple sauce
150ml olive oil
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 mashed ripe bananas
200g (7oz) coarsely crushed pumpkin seeds
1. In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking soda, and salt.
2. Add apple sauce, oil and vanilla to flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon until just blended. Gently stir in bananas and pumpkin seeds.
3. Spread batter evenly in prepared pan.
4. Bake in preheated oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until a tooth pick inserted in the center comes out with a few moist crumbs attached. Let cool in pan on a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Bio: Jenny Tschiesche is an Award-winning author, presenter and child nutrition expert. Jenny is the founder of www.lunchboxdoctor.com, which provides a whole range of resources, menu plans, recipes and nutrition advice to parents, teachers and children alike. After Jenny sent her eldest child to school in 2009 with her first packed lunchbox, experiencing the difficulties of making it nutritionally balanced whilst still enjoyable for her child, she set up a Facebook page to support fellow parents with making healthier lunchboxes for their children. The Facebook page was so well received that in 2012 Jenny wrote her first book called ‘Not Just Sandwiches – 5 ways to improve your child’s lunchbox’. The book won an award within its first month of being published. She is also a regular contributor to the national press and radio currently including BBC News 24, BBC Radio, Sky News, Healthy Magazine, The Express, The Guardian, The Mail, Men’s Health and Prima.