Depending on the age of your child, make sure the new, healthy food looks attractive and appetising. Picture: Needpix
Whether they’re toddlers or in their teens, children develop a natural preference for the foods they enjoy the most.

Getting your child to embrace a healthy lifestyle is really important and sometimes requires some creativity.

With many schools opening next week, January is a good time to make nutritional changes to your children’s lunchboxes.

Juliet Fearnhead, Pick n Pay’s dietitian, says for school lunchboxes, parents can offer children different healthy choices to build healthy eating habits. 

Fearnhead adds that when children eat well, they have the nutrients and energy they need to grow.

“Healthy eating helps children concentrate and perform better in school, sports and other activities. And by being more physically active, it helps children be strong and fit while improving their confidence,” says Fearnhead.

Why is it important for kids to eat healthy foods while they are at school?

Registered dietitian and Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) spokesperson Zelda Ackerman says healthy food provides all the nutrients that your child’s body needs to function optimally.

“One of the most important reasons why it is important to pack healthy foods for school break is that the foods will affect your child’s concentration and therefore his learning ability. Children’s blood sugar is greatly affected by what and how much they eat. Healthy foods, given in age-appropriate portions help to keep blood sugar levels steady which helps children to concentrate, learn and perform optimally in sports activities. It also prevents irritability due to low blood sugar which can interfere with social interactions,” says Ackerman.

However, Ackerman advises parents to phase out the unhealthy food over a period of a month.

Here’s how Ackerman says you can approach it:

If, for example, you previously packed a packet of crisps, sweets and cold drink, then replace one of them with a fruit. 

A week or two later, replace a second one with a healthy food, and a week or two later replace the last unhealthy food with a healthy alternative.

Give one of the unhealthy foods once a week for another month before completely stopping it.

Be sure not to buy it anymore because if your child sees it in the cupboard he/she will ask you to pack it.

Depending on the age of your child, make sure the new healthy food looks attractive and appetising.

Any parent will attest to the battle they have with children when it comes to eating vegetables, Fearnhead says make it fun by serving broccoli and other veggies with a favourite dip or sauce.

To get children more enthusiastic about vegetables, try the "veggie challenge" where kids are encouraged to eat a vegetable each day with a name that starts with each letter of the alphabet - from aubergines to zucchini.

Cut food into various shapes with cookie cutters or get the kids involved in making fruit kebabs for a dessert.

Part of the fun is to ask your children to identify the different vegetables in-store and to find vegetables they might not have eaten already. Add more vegetables to their diet by disguising them in meals - you can add finely chopped broccoli or grated carrot to bolognaise or mix grated marrows and peppers into casseroles and soups.

Here are some lunch box ideas from  Zelda Ackerman from ADSA:

These are for snack boxes for break time:

  • A variety of fresh fruit and vegetables. Focus on always having different colours available.
  • Low fat unsweetened yoghurt or milk
  • About 2 -3 times a week: Peanuts and raisins, nuts and nut butters. 
  • Children older than 7yrs will also need a small starch like healthy whole wheat crackers like Provita or Ryvita or homemade popcorn.

For lunch (not for snack at breaktime)

  • Low GI whole wheat sandwich with cheese and tomato, a peach and a bottle of cold water.
  • Whole wheat pasta with baked beans and a spoon of Canola reduced oil mayonnaise. Add a fresh fruit salad.
  • Provitas and vegetable crudite, carrot or cucumber with a homemade hummus dip and a bottle of cold water.

Drinks: 

  • The best drink to pack is clean, still water.
  • If your child loves drinking milk, you can also pack a bottle of low fat or fat free unflavoured milk. Remember to pack a cold pack to keep the milk cold.