I am blessed to have a toddler who loves to eat. Not everything, of course. And, of course, his preferences can change from one day to the next. But, overall, Luca is eating what the whole family is eating. Well, to be honest, the whole family is rather eating toddler meals. Which is not a bad thing per se. We try to cook healthy meals that include lots of veggies, starches and proteins. We also use only few salt and sugar but lots of different spices. And, last but not least, we try to cook meals that look exciting. Colourful. Yummy.
Having said that, our meal plan is generally evolving around 5, 6 or 7 dishes we know Luca likes. And, while I seem to cope with lunch & dinner at home, I completely fail when it comes to nursery lunchboxes (or rather snack boxes in our case). I always give the same few things… Watermelon, grapes, blueberries. Little cheese or jam sandwiches. Yoghurt (that’s a risky one), biscuits, bread sticks. Boring!
So, when I was recently invited to meet up with Spinneys’ in-house nutritionist Freda Molamphy, I couldn’t wait to get some new ideas. I wanted something simple. Something I’d be able to prepare in advance. Something that our little L would be able to easily hold in his hands without smearing it all over himself in no time. Something attractive. And yummy. And healthy.
I will share with you some of the (admittedly super yummy, healthy AND easy-to-prepare) lunchbox ideas Freda gave us. But let’s start with some general tips from the pro on how to make sure our kids get a balanced and healthy diet:
- Choose natural foods with minimal processing. Processed foods contain important amounts of added sodium and sugars.
- Don’t cook separate “kids’ meals”. Give exactly what the rest of the family is having, but in appropriate serving size.
- Eat together as a family whenever possible.
- Try to vary foods as much as possible to expose kids to a whole range of nutrients.
- If children don’t eat much of their meal, accept what they have eaten but don’t offer any further snacks in “compensation” until the next meal.
- When it comes to breakfast, think outside the cereal box! Meatballs, chicken, cheese, sardines on toast can make highly nutritious breakfast ideas
- Give yoghourts as they are a good source of calcium but make sure you don’t choose those that are loaded with added sugars. Full fat plain yoghourt with fresh fruits and maybe a bit of honey is the better option.
- Don’t forget hydration! The best fluids to keep the kids hydrated are plain water, milk or very diluted fruit juices. Fizzy drinks should be avoided and be seen as a special treat only.
According to Freda, lunchboxes (and meals at home as well, of course) should include 5 core nutrients:
- Healthy Starch for energy: Wholegrain breads, bagels and tortillas, wholegrain pasta, rice, grains (quinoa, couscous, bulgur, freekeh, barley etc).
Serving size can vary with the age and activity level of the child, but give less more often rather than too large a servings.
- Protein for growth and overall health: Meat, fish (especially the oily varieties such as salmon, trout, mackerel, sardines), chicken, eggs, tofu, nuts, cheese.
- Fruit for vitamins and antioxidants: A portion size is roughly the same size as the child’s hand. Don’t over feed fruit as all fruit has sugars, albeit natural sugars. Try to vary fruit also as much as possible. Berries are a powerhouse of nutrients and usually loved by children. Try to avoid too much acidic fruits such as citrus as they can be irritating for some children. Always remember that eating fruit is far better than drinking juices and kinder to teeth also.
- Vegetables for vitamins, minerals and antioxidants: Portion size here can be larger than a child’s hand. Children often prefer raw, hand-held veggies rather than cooked. The “Sulphur” notes in broccoli, sprouts, cauliflower and cabbages, when cooked, can be off-putting for some wee folk but do keep re-introducing them on a regular basis as palates develop over time.
- Dairy for Calcium: A very important part of a child’s diet in order to lay down healthy bones, teeth, hair etc. Always give full fat to younger children so that they get the valuable fat soluble vitamins A. Also, look for a milk that is fortified with Vitamin D where possible.
And here are some lunchbox ideas that I personally found very interesting and will certainly try to make for little L:
Crunchy Lunchbox Quinoa Falafel
Prepare 15 minutes plus cooling
Cook 15 minutes
2-3 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, crushed
400g kale, stalks removed and leaves chopped
300g cooked quinoa
100g parmesan, finely grated
50g chick pea flour
2 eggs, beaten
Set a large frying pan with 1 tbsp oil over a medium heat. Add the onion and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes. Season, stir in the kale and cook for 2-3 minutes more, until softened.
Remove from the heat and leave to cool, then finely chop and transfer to a bowl. Alternatively, blitz in a food processor.
Add the quinoa, parmesan and flour and mix well to combine. Season the mixture, if you like, then stir in the eggs to form a thick paste.
Set a large frying pan with 1 tbsp oil over a medium-high heat. Working in batches, spoon the falafel into the pan and cook for 3 minutes, turning halfway and adding more oil if needed, until golden brown.
Leave to cool then pack into airtight lunchboxes. Freeze the extra falafel for up to 1 month and defrost overnight in the fridge when needed.
Lunchbox Mini Miso Chicken Skewers
Prepare 10 minutes plus soaking and cooling
Cook 10 minutes
25g miso paste
1 tsp honey
2 tbsp sunflower oil
2 chicken breasts, each sliced lengthways into 15 strips
Whisk together the miso, honey and 1 tbsp oil in a shallow dish. Add the chicken strips and coat well.
Soak 10 bamboo skewers in water for 30 minutes. Thread 3 strips of chicken onto each skewer.
Set a non-stick frying pan with the remaining oil over a medium-high heat. Add as many skewers as you require to the pan and cook for 8-10 minutes, turning halfway, until golden and cooked through.
Remove from the pan and leave to cool before packing into airtight lunchboxes.
Arrange the remaining skewers on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Cover with cling film and freeze. Defrost overnight in the fridge when needed and cook as above.
Lunchbox Granola Bites
Prepare 10 minutes plus cooling
Cook 30 minutes
150g coconut palm sugar
450g porridge oats
50g ground flaxseed
100g dates or sultanas, chopped
100g sunflower seeds
Line a 30cm x 20cm shallow baking tin with baking paper. Preheat the oven to 190°C, gas mark 5.
Put the butter, honey and sugar in a large saucepan set over a medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, without allowing the mixture to come to the boil.
Stir in the porridge oats, flaxseed, dates or sultanas and sunflower seeds. Tip into the prepared tin, packing the mixture firmly and pressing down to even the surface. Cook for 20-25 minutes.
Leave the granola to cool in the tin for 15 minutes. Cut into 30 bite-sized pieces, offering 2-3 per portion. Store the extra granola bites in an airtight container in the fridge for up to a week.
Portable Popcorn Cones
Prepare 20 minutes plus cooling
Cook 10 minutes
waxed paper or baking paper
1 tbsp canola oil
50g popcorn kernels
1 tbsp zaatar
4 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp finely chopped pecans
Use the coloured card to make 4 cones and seal the edges with glue. Line with waxed paper or baking paper.
Set a heavy-based pan with the oil over a high heat. Add the popcorn kernels and as soon as they start to pop, cover with a tight-fitting lid. Shake the pan occasionally until the popping stops. Remove from the heat and divide the popcorn between 2 large containers.
To flavour the popcorn, sprinkle one batch with the zaatar, shake to coat and leave to cool. For the other batch, set a pan with the maple syrup over a medium heat. Tip in the pecans and warm through for 2 minutes, swirling the pan. Drizzle over the remaining popcorn, then leave to cool.
Divide the popcorn among the cones. Tuck the paper over the popcorn and into the cones. Fold over the back section of each cone to create a lid and secure with string.
Personally, I am always searching online for new lunch/lunchbox ideas for little L. Some useful websites/ IG accounts I’ve found are:
www.AnnabelKarmel.com as well as the IG account @annabelkarmel (we regularly cook her toddler recipes for the whole family😉 )
www.spinneys-dubai.com (you will find plenty of yummy recipe ideas under ‘Recipes’ – ‘Family & Kids’), IG: @spinneysdubai
www.secretsquirrelfood.com (not necessarily for toddler but yummy and fun), IG: @secretsquirrelfood
www.easytoddlermeals.com and the IG account @easytoddlermeals
www.kidsfooduniverse.com, IG:@toddlerfoodideas and @babyfooduniverse
www.cuddlesandcrumbs.com, IG: @cuddlesandcrumbs for some great bento ideas
Let me know if you try out any of these recipes or if you have other great ideas (recipes, websites, IG accounts…) to make our little ones’ lunch boxes more exciting.