Back To School: 10 Quick Tips For Tooth-Friendly School Lunches
Today all public schools in Canberra reopen their doors to their new students in primary and high school, and tomorrow classes for all returning students (primary and secondary) begin. By the end of this week all Canberra schools, public and independent, will be back in action. Hopefully your kids are rested and refreshed after the summer holidays and are ready for a year of learning, friendship and fun!
This is a great time of year to establish some healthy lunch box habits and to make sure your kids are skilled in making good choices at their school canteen. So here are a few quick tips that we’ve rounded up to get school lunches off to a great start!
Water is undeniably the best thing to drink at school, after school, before school…. And the great thing about water is that, unless there is a problem with your water mains, it’s always available- you won’t ever run out!
Most kids prefer their water cold, so in the warmer months it’s a great idea to partly fill one or more drink bottles with water for each child and pop them into the freezer overnight. Top them up with water next morning, make sure they are put in the school bag away from paper (because even the best-sealed water bottle gets wet due to condensation).
We reckon it’s worth investing in quality drink bottles that close properly even after months of use and that are easy to clean (avoid the straw-style sippers or any openings that are difficult to wash).
READ THE LABELS
Read the labels of every packaged food that you are tempted to buy as lunchbox fillers, and avoid those that have any form of sugar as one of the first three ingredients (because this means there is a LOT of sugar in that product). This probably means that most muesli bars, fruit bars and muffins won’t make it into your child’s tooth-friendly lunchbox. The best rule of thumb is: no packaged food.
Fresh fruit is much better than fruit bars, dried fruit or fruit juice: it contains micronutrients and fibre in a sweet, delicious morsel. However, fruit still contains lots of natural sugar and may also be acidic, which is why Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that fruit be limited to between one and three serves a day, depending on the age of the child.
Offer plenty of variety when it comes to fruit- they come in every colour of the rainbow, so when budget and season allows, give your kids berries, citrus fruits, apples and pears, melons and stone fruit.
DRIED FRUIT IS A “SOMETIMES” FOOD
If your kids are eating dried fruit as an occasional serve, make sure they don’t eat too much! The drying process concentrates the sugar in fruit (which is why dried fruit tastes so delicious!), but did you know that a serve of dried fruit is just four apricot halves or 1.5 tablespoons of sultanas?
This article is great, as it explains what a serve of fruit looks like, and backs up our concerns that too much fruit can put consumers at risk of developing tooth decay: http://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/five-food-groups/fruit.
It’s quite hard to find information about a standard serve of dried fruit, so we suggest that you read the pack and observe the serving sizes, or take the approach of the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation and assume a serve is equivalent to one tablespoon of dried fruit:
EAT LOTS OF VEGETABLES!
Kids should have between two and fours serves of vegetables every day, and adults need five.
In a lunchbox, veggies can be added in into sandwiches (lettuce, tomato, grated carrot, cucumber goes great with ham, cheese or tuna), delicious fresh sticks (carrots, celery, cucumber, capsicum perhaps with a little tub of hommus) or as a fresh salad.
During the colder months, consider sending a thermos filled with delicious home-made vegetable soup, vegetable curry or stir fry.
Here’s a great resource from the New Zealand Nutrition Foundation that might get even more ideas flowing: 25 Easy Ways To Get More Veges
CHIPS ARE NOT TOOTH-FRIENDLY
We all know that a packet of chips are unlikely to be counted as a serve of vegetables, even though they are usually made of potato. However, don’t get fooled into believing that chips are a better choice for teeth than sugary foods!
Starchy foods like chips, white bread, popcorn and savoury crackers contain carbohydrates which dissolve in the mouth under the influence of digestive enzymes in the saliva, and the resulting particles can be consumed by plaque bacteria just as easily as sugar. This means that starchy foods do contribute to tooth decay.
Takeaway: Chips, crackers, and even popcorn should be considered ‘occasional’ foods for the tooth-friendly lunchbox.
AVOID DAILY TREATS
Everyone loves a treat, but we strongly believe that sugary treats should only ever be occasional, perhaps once a week, perhaps randomly delivered to your child’s lunchbox so that they are always a surprise.
A daily treat ceases to be a treat and often becomes an expectation, and of course every sugar-laden treat adds extra sugar to your child’s diet.
This can be a tough call for our kids, especially if their classmates’ lunch boxes are filled with packaged foods or their pockets filled with money to spend unsupervised at the canteen. This is where kids need your guidance to help them to understand why their lunchbox looks so different to that of some of their peers.
Cheese is one of the most tooth-friendly options that you might consider for your child’s lunchbox. It stimulates the flow of saliva, which protects tooth enamel and washes away food and acids from around the teeth.
Nuts are also tooth friendly (nut butters are quite sticky and therefore not so good). However, given that most Canberra schools have a strict no-nut policy, keep nuts for after-school snacks instead.
Many kids are tempted to buy ‘occasional’ foods from the school canteen, which is no problem if this is part of your overall plan for them. But if your child completes their own lunch order or is allowed to buy whatever they want at recess on a regular basis, it might be worth getting a copy of the Canteen Menu from their school and identifying foods that are a healthy, tooth-friendly option.
These days, school canteens in Canberra must follow the National Healthy School Canteen Guidelines. The ACT Nutrition Support Service assists canteens to ‘green up’ their menus with healthy options classified by the ‘traffic light’ system. So it’s now much easier for your child to choose nutritious canteen lunches.
Whatever your school’s canteen offers on its menu, the most empowering thing you can do for your children is to look at the menu with them and explain which foods are the best choice and why.
KIDS IN THE KITCHEN
And speaking of empowerment, why not get your child involved in their lunchboxes every day!
From choosing the foods, to preparing and packing in the morning, to being responsible for unpacking their schoolbags in the afternoon and washing their lunchbox and drink bottle ready for the next day, your child will at least have an appreciation for what’s involved in packing school lunches, and at best will be learning skills that will serve them well for the rest of their life.
First Published on Feb 2, 2015 – Last updated in June 2019