What’s in our kids’ lunch boxes?
We visited schools from one of the poorest and wealthiest suburbs in the same city and took a peek inside kids’ lunch boxes. Here’s what we found.
It’s a relentless dilemma most parents can relate to — what to put in your child’s lunch box that is quick to make, affordable, healthy, and won’t come home uneaten at the end of the day. Easy, right?
And for some families it’s a struggle to send anything at all.
We decided to visit two schools from different parts of Melbourne — Broadmeadows, one of the city’s most disadvantaged areas; and Brighton, one of the most wealthy — to photograph what was in children’s lunchboxes.
This was the most impressive
This student’s lunch box contained a homemade cous cous, tuna and vegetable salad, salted popcorn, homemade baked goods, a muesli bar, cherry tomatoes and cucumber. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Paediatric nutritionist Mandy Sacher identified this lunch, which included a homemade couscous salad, as the best out of all the ones we photographed.
(The student packing this one actually said they had made the salad themselves!)
And these were the most concerning
Ms Sacher said the most confronting lunches were in Broadmeadows, where teachers said it was also not uncommon for kids to turn up to school with no lunch at all.
This lunch box contained a lunch order for wedges along with two packets of chips, two packets of biscuits, a packet of Shapes, lollies, an LCMs Coco Pops bar and a fruit drink box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
Another student just brought two packets of cookies for their lunch. “This is heartbreaking,” paediatric nutritionist Mandy Sacher said. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Here’s what lunch looks like in Broadmeadows…
The median weekly household income in Broadmeadows is $900, well below the Australia-wide median of $1,440.
Nutella in pita bread, a packet of plain chips and a packet of Cheezels. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A ham and butter sandwich, chicken flavoured potato snacks, choc chip cookies, chopped watermelon and an apple fruit drink box.
A Nutella sandwich, Coco Pops LCMs bar, salt and vinegar potato chips and pizza-flavoured shapes. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A peanut butter sandwich, Le Snak cheese and crackers, teddy bear biscuits, potato chips, an apple and a peach. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Cheese in pita bread, a banana and a strawberry flavoured milk box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
A small tub of steamed rice, cheese rice cake bites and an Italian cacao biscuit. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Homemade zatar bread, salt and vinegar potato chips, Le Snak cheese and biscuits, a Bueno chocolate bar, a banana and an apple and raspberry flavoured fruit box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
A sesame seed bagel and cream cheese, plain potato chips and an apple flavoured fruit box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A pizza lunch order, potato chips, chocolate bar, lollies, an apple and orange fruit box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A Nutella roll, choc chip cookies, Cheezels, sea salt potato chips, grapes and a mandarin. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
Tuna, crackers, yoghurt, cake, biscuits, potato chips, caramel popcorn and a chocolate flavoured milk box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A Nutella sandwich, potato chips, cake, a choc chip muesli bar and a nectarine. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A Nutella sandwich, peanut flavoured corn puffs and a chocolate-flavoured milk box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
A Vegemite and cheese sandwich, chicken flavoured potato chips, sultanas and dried cranberries and a chocolate flavoured Up and Go. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
A tin of tuna, Cheezles, pizza flavoured Shapes and chocolate cookies. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A peanut butter sandwich, nuts, a banana, an apple and a tropical fruit box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A peanut butter sandwich, lamingtons, chocolate rice puffs bar and two fruit drinks. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
And here’s lunch in Brighton…
The median weekly household income in Brighton is $2,410, well above the Australia-wide median of $1,440.
A ham pizza scroll, a carrots, cherry tomatoes, chopped apple and biscuits. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A cheese and vegemite sandwich, a chocolate nut bar, salted popcorn and an apple. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A vegemite roll, apple, crackers, cheese stick and a cola lolly pop. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A Vegemite roll, strawberry yoghurt muesli bar, teddy bear biscuits, yoghurt and berries. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Pita bread with cream cheese, a muffin, sea salt popcorn and a chocolate milk box. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
A beef, lettuce and relish roll, a packet of corn chips, two miniature cucumbers, a nectarine and an apple. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Roast beef, rocket and wholemeal mustard sandwich on multigrain bread, chopped carrot and cucumber, a nectarine, strawberries, banana and a snack size packet of Maltesers. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A vegemite roll, homemade cake, an apple, tasty cheese with crackers and kabana. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Vegemite and butter on a white roll, a packet of Smith’s plain chips, rice crackers, and two nectarines. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A cheese and bacon roll, chopped mango, a fruit roll-up, crackers and a choc chip muesli bar. (ABC News: Margaret Burin )
A cheese and bacon roll, popcorn, a rice cake and chopped fruit and vegetables. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A chicken lettuce and mayo sandwich, a packet of Shapes, biscuits, cherry tomatoes, and an apple. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
Chopped up french stick bread with butter, sliced pear, tiny teddy biscuits, popcorn and a Milkyway. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
A ham and lettuce sandwich, a Le Snak cheese and biscuits, Grain Waves wholegrain chips and an apple fruit box drink. (ABC News: Margaret Burin)
How much did the economic differences change kids’ lunches?
Not a lot, nutritionist Mandy Sacher says.
But there did seem to be a tendency towards somewhat lower sugar levels in the wealthier area.
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“In Brighton most of them had a serve of vegies and fruit,” she said. “In Broadmeadows I did see more sugar, there was definitely a lot more packaged food.
“I actually think those lunch boxes were costing parents more because there was so much store-bought packaged food.”
Overall, she said the sample suggested the challenge of packing an interesting and nutritious lunch box is a universal one.
“There’s not much difference between the two schools,” she said. “Most of them were just bread and packaged food.”
Just one in 17 Aussie children are eating the recommended number of serves of both fruit and vegetables, according to the latest National Health Survey.
Ms Sacher said as a nutritionist she was not interested in pointing fingers, but trying to offer parents simple solutions to fix the problem.
“From a young age we should be setting the standards for long-lasting healthy eating habits.”
Vegemite, ham and Nutella as staples
In this sample of school lunch boxes, most kids turned up each day with a white bread sandwich as their main lunch item.
Vegemite or ham were the fillings of choice for most kids in the wealthier suburb, compared to Nutella in the poorer suburb.
Ms Sacher said none of these options were providing any sustenance.
“The biggest problem with all these lunch boxes across the board is refined carbohydrates and far too much sugar,” she said.
“With just Nutella or Vegemite, you’re not getting protein on those sandwiches.
“They’re going to get a quick fix of sugar, their blood sugar levels are going to spike and then they’re going to drop and they’re going to be hungry.”
Ms Sacher said home-made lunches can have great short and long-term health benefits.
“Children are often labelled with things like ADHD or hyperactivity or they can’t concentrate at school,” she said. “Just by simply starting to change the foods they’re eating you can start to see a difference.”
Five tips for moving away from the Vegemite sandwich
Mandy Sacher is also the founder of Wholesome Child. These are her five tips for packing a healthier lunch that will still get eaten.
1. Multi-tasking meals
Mandy Sacher says more parents could be using dinner leftovers for lunch box fillers. (Supplied: Mandy Sacher)
Send the kids to school with what you’ve had for dinner is her biggest tip.
“If you look at places like Brazil, France, Japan, China and South Africa, children eat hot meals. Even in hot weather kids can still have a proper meal at school.”
“If you’re having roast chicken, spaghetti bolognaise, homemade pizza, mac and cheese, why is this food not coming to school?
“It may be sending it in a thermos or getting kids used to eating leftovers cold.”
She said dinner could often be converted into a hearty lunch box meal very easily.
“Simply taking some roast chicken and adding it to pasta with maybe a bit of mayonnaise or yoghurt as a creamy dressing, that is not time-consuming and you’re also going to be saving money.”
2. Increase variety
Change it up, she said. A weekly meal planner can mean kids don’t just get used to eating the same thing every day.
Ms Sacher said it was best to introduce foods on the weekend, after school and during play dates before popping them into lunch boxes.
Ms Sacher says homemade baked treats often contain much less sugar than store-bought packaged products. (Supplied: Mandy Sacher)
3. Get the kids involved
Everyone knows kids can be fussy.
Making them a part of packing their lunch and getting them to come up with ideas for their meal planner helped increase the amount of things they would eat, Ms Sacher said.
“Let them know, ‘if you want your Vegemite sandwich on the Monday, you can’t have it on the Tuesday, so what are we going to eat?’.
“Number one it saves you time, and you also know that you’re going to be sending them with things that they are going to eat.”
4. Have healthy staples on hand
Ms Sacher recommended spending a couple of hours shopping and preparing food on the weekend, making sure some simple staples are prepared and ready to go.
She said having things like hummus, tuna and mayonnaise, chopped carrots and cucumbers, roasted chickpeas and boiled eggs in the fridge would take pressure off weekday mornings.
“Having those easy foods prepared means that you can just pop them in a lunch box when you’ve run out of time,” she said.
She also suggested preparing some healthier homemade goods — banana bread, vegetable muffins or sweet potato pizza — that can be portioned, frozen and defrosted during the week.
Mandy Sacher says making homemade pizza and freezing it at the start of the week can make a quick and easy lunch box solution for busy weekdays. (Supplied: Mandy Sacher)
5. Read the labels
Food labels can be confusing and difficult to understand.
In short, Ms Sacher said when looking at similar products on the supermarket shelf, compare sodium, sugar, food additive and preservative levels.
“Overall I tell parents to avoid numbers and food colourings wherever possible — anything that is not food.”
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