Packed lunches: Can they be healthy, easy, cheap, environmentally and child-friendly?

I think they can.  It’s a fine balance but it is possible.

I often get asked about healthy packed lunches.  I try to tiptoe a wiggly line between health, ease, environmental-impact and child-acceptability!  I don’t get it perfectly right and I’m no Delia Smith, but for what it’s worth, here are some simple ideas for creating a healthy packed lunch for you or your child.

Lunch box

BreadSandwiches

In an ideal world, I would provide my children with a cooked, warm meal in a snazzy food flask.  The obstacles to this are two-fold.  One, my children would rebel.  Two, what with running around after 3 children, working every minute they are out of the house; I just don’t have time to cook three hot meals a day.  I probably could, but it would kill me and that won’t do them any favours! If you can though, do it.

So I go for the healthiest kind of sandwiches I can provide, knowing that despite being cold and possibly a little drying (not good for vata, especially in the autumn and winter months), they are full of good nutrients.

Bread.  The ultimate choices are flatbread, sourdough bread or soda bread.  These are either yeast-free or naturally fermented and thus not over-heating to the body (see sourdough article).  The bread should be made with spelt which is far more digestible than modern wheat (see the article on it here) and is truly delicious.  It can more or less be substituted for normal wheat flour in most recipes which makes it very easy.  I make a spelt sourdough loaf in the bread-maker (recipe) every other day and that keeps us nicely in bread.

Sandwich Fillings.  Always include some form of protein in the sandwich (e.g. nuts/seeds, dairy, fish, white meat) and try to make them more moist than dry.   It’s a great opportunity to get some vegetables in here too, grated is always easier on the digestion than whole chunks.

Here are some ideas for simple, nutritious, child-friendly fillings:

  • Almond or cashew butter with grated carrot (if the school is not a nut-free zone). Nuts provide protein along with important oils and calcium. Almonds are particularly high in calcium so if don’t eat dairy for one reason or another, it is a good idea to eat plenty of them.  The carrot gives a lovely moistness to the sandwich.  I make my almond butter at home, it’s incredibly easy using a food processor.  Find the Almond butter recipe here.
  • Pumpkin seed or sunflower seed butter make for good alternatives to nut butters if your school or workplace doesn’t allow nuts. These seeds are particularly great to getting essential fatty acids such as omega 3 and 6 into your diet.  I find honey goes really well with these butters; it takes the bitter edge off, adds that moisture and is great for reducing mucous in the body.  Make sure it is a non-heated, raw honey as heated honey loses all its benefits.
  • Hummus. This is great to have a few times a week, a good dose of protein in a very tasty form.  Homemade is obviously best and yet another opportunity to sneak in some vegetables such as spinach, broad beans, asparagus.  Add grated carrot to make a really tasty sandwich.
  • Avocado. I’ll have this, even if my children don’t!
  • Egg. My children prefer buttered bread alongside a hard boiled egg (nice and simple!) but there is also the egg – mayonnaise classic.  Add some pieces of chopped carrot, sweat peas or cucumber next to the sandwich.
  • Fish. Have this maximum once a week as both meat and fish should be eaten in moderation and if you are eating it for evening meals too, it all adds up.  You could go for the classic tuna and sweetcorn or salmon and cucumber sandwich.  Alternatively use a simply whizzed-together mackerel or sardine paté (mackerel, squeeze of lemon or lime and some butter).  The patés are great with cucumber and sometime I add cucumber or spinach into the pate itself (great for picky children who notice and reject green stuff!).
  • Cheese. Avoid hard cows cheese as this is highly indigestible, clogs the channels in the body and encourages mucous formation.   Instead try a soft goat’s cheese, or occasionally hard goat’s cheese.  Cottage cheese is also very easy to digest and doesn’t clog the body in the same way other cow’s cheese does.   A sprinkle of black pepper helps digest the cheese.  Have with grated or whole cucumber or accompanied with some sweet peas.
  • Meat. If you have some leftover chicken or turkey from the previous meal, slice it up and use it in the sandwich.  Don’t, however, use processed meats and hams – the meat won’t be organic or free-range and the processing chemicals are harmful to health (cancer and diabetes just two proven links to mention).  Eat maximum once a week, as like fish above, it is best eaten in moderation.

Don’t cling-film, pop your sandwiches in BPA-free plastic boxes.  Better on the environment and your health.

Remember, if you or your child is having sandwiches for lunch, make sure the evening meal isn’t also based on wheat or spelt (bread, pasta, couscous etc) as it is fairly heavy for digestion and in our western diets we tend to eat an awful lot of it.

The fun stuff…

A unique concept in Ayurveda is the concept of bad food combinations.  The most important of these are the following two:

  • Don’t mix milk with raw fruit, eggs, meat and especially fish.
  • Don’t mix raw fruit with any food and especially milk, yoghurt or meat.

If food is eaten in these combinations, digestion is impaired and you get symptoms of aama, such as bloating, wind, constipation/loose motions.

Thus, fresh fruit in the lunch box is out.  It is best to give fruit as the morning and afternoon snacks, then children get two good portions of fruit a day but without combining it with other food.

Snack tubesThese snack-tubes from Nude Food Movers (Smash) are brilliant for providing a couple of extras for the lunch.

This avoids the need for expensive and environmentally unfriendly little packets and allows you to make just the portion size you want.  They seal tight so you can put sloppy foods in them.  I use just two compartments – three different ideas a day would be pushing it!

Here are some ideas I cycle through on a weekly basis:

packed lunch snacks

  • Sunflower and pumpkin seeds (or nuts if you’re allowed to add them!) for a bit more protein and essential fatty acid goodness.
  • Stewed fruit such as apples, pears, plums. Easily stewed in bulk and spooned into the pots.  Add some cinnamon, cloves or nutmeg for some added digestive ease and flavour.
  • Dried unsweetened fruit such as raisins, figs, unsulphured apricots, dates, prunes. These get a bad press from a dental perspective but if they are eaten with the meal, their impact on dental health is significantly reduced and if the children don’t have other sugary foods and drinks throughout the day, the teeth are fine.Occasional organic live yoghurt with honey to help reduce the mucous forming properties.
  • Oat cakes, corn cakes, rye crackers with butter or ghee on them.
  • Any homemade goodies that are hanging about – try these date flapjacks.
  • Black olives. If you have willing children, add some cucumber chunks and olive oil to make a little greek salad.
  • Japanese rice crackers

As you can tell, I’m not going to win prizes for culinary prowess but I think there are some simple ways here to make sure you or your child get a fully rounded, nutritious lunch.   If that doesn’t float your boat, how about the fact that each lunch costs less than 50p?

Until next time, take care of yourselves.

Kate

Author: Kate Siraj, Ayurvedic Practitioner, BSc Ayurveda, MChem (Oxon), MAPA.
© The Ayurveda Practice

Photos thanks to FreeDigitalPhotos.net

2 thoughts on “Packed lunches: Can they be healthy, easy, cheap, environmentally and child-friendly?

  • Some really great ideas Kate. It’s always a struggle to try and make quick packed lunches healthier. I might need to invest in a bread maker

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