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Lessons in lunch: nutritious alternatives for school

By Kerry McKittrick

Say the words 'school lunch' to anyone of a certain age and it will doubtless conjure up images – and smells – of grey meat, overcooked fish and chips and soggy semolina. Not only are lunches changing through for the better in many school canteens, though parents are becoming increasingly switched on about what to give their kids when it comes to preparing packed lunches too. Although the likes of a ham sandwich, chocolate biscuits and crisps have always been favourites, they may not be the best way to give your child the energy and concentration needed for a busy day in the classroom and playground.

As families across Northern Ireland start gearing up for the big return to school next week, we asked a well-known local nutritionist to give us her tips and recipes for making sure mealtimes aren't boring for your kids.

‘The key is to give kids variety’

Jane McClenaghan is a nutritional therapist who has been running the local company Vital Nutrition since 2001. The 41-year-old lives and works in Belfast. She says:

“The most important thing for parents when it comes to kids lunches is variety. You don't want your child to get bored and you want them to have lots of nutrients. That can be tricky for a child who will only eat ham sandwiches.

The key is to be creative, particularly with vegetables — finger foods, like carrot sticks, are much more fun to eat than an ordinary vegetable. Having something to dip them in also makes them more interesting. A mini pot of hummus is a great idea as it's really good for you. It's packed full of protein and even has zinc to boost the immune system.

If children eat too much sugar they'll get an immediate high, then a real energy slump in the middle of the afternoon, and that affects concentration. Aim to avoid high sugar snacks such as chocolate and go for alternatives such as digestive biscuits.

Avoid white bread and go for seeded wholemeal — pitta pockets are a good substitute for bread as they're something new and a little different.

Portion size is something to be aware of too and should be relative to body size — a basic guide is that one of your child's fists is the size of a portion for them.”

Healthy packed lunch recipes

Tuna pitta pockets, £1.44 each:

Mix tinned tuna in water or olive oil (avoid the brine) with a little horseradish sauce, a dollop of natural yoghurt, some black pepper and chopped scallions.

Serve the mixture in a wholemeal pitta pocket with some rocket or grated carrot.

Pasta or rice salad, £2.44:

Make a pasta or rice salad with pesto, chicken, chopped tomatoes, cucumber and avocado. For a healthy sweet treat add an apple and small portion of dried fruit and seeds.

Couscous salad, £1.91:

Cook the couscous in stock with chickpeas then add feta cheese, tomatoes, peppers, a squeeze of lemon juice and a little olive oil. Add a little pot of berries and yogurt for dessert.

Leftover lunch with oatcakes, £2.44:

Feel free to use your leftovers from the night before. A chicken leg with oatcakes, crackers or breadsticks, with a mini pot of hummus with carrot sticks, pepper sticks or some cherry tomatoes is ideal. You can also use leftovers in wholemeal sandwiches with a drop of mayo.

Jane’s top tips for healthy lunches

Get creative: make fruit fun

Make it colourful — a rainbow of colourful fruits and vegetables will ensure your child has a good intake of vitamins and minerals. Finger food such as sugar snap peas and carrot sticks are great fun for younger children. Small portions of berries or a fruit kebab are more interesting than a simple orange or banana and you can keep chopped apple fresh with a squeeze of lime juice

Salt — the mainstays of children's lunches — cheese, ham and crisps — are loaded with salt. Use chicken, egg or tuna — not the kind in brine — instead

Protein — essential not just for growth and development but for mood and energy in the afternoon. Chicken drumsticks, mini pots of hummus, a hard-boiled egg or smoked mackerel pate are all good sources

Carbohydrates — slow releasing carbs will sustain energy and concentration. White bread gives a fast energy release followed by a crash so substitute it with brown or wholemeal. If your child isn't keen then start off with 50/50 or Best Of Both loaves, before moving on to healthier breads. Cous cous, oatcakes and pitta pockets are great substitutes for white bread

Drinks — smoothies, cordials and fruit juices are loaded with sugar and even sugar-free drinks are full of artificial sweeteners. Plain water is the best for hydrating your child

Save time — create lunches such as cous cous or rice salads in bulk so you don't need to make a lunch every day. Also plan for the week ahead, this also reduces food waste and helps you stick to a budget

Shop smart — take advantage of offers in the supermarket but also shop seasonally. Local, independent greengrocers are often cheaper that the big supermarkets

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