Lunchbox.
Lunchbox. Photo: Marina Oliphant. Styling: Caroline Velik

Jane Southward

The latest Australian statistics indicate 23 per cent of children aged two to 16 are overweight or obese. Of these, 6 per cent are obese.

Given that students spend almost eight hours a day at school, what they find in their lunchboxes is more important than ever.

Yet Clare Collins, professor of nutrition and dietetics at the University of Newcastle and a spokeswoman for the Dietitians Association of Australia, says it is too easy for children to eat poorly.

"You can't blame people," Professor Collins says. "Most of the pre-packaged foods you find for schoolchildren at the supermarket aren't good for them."

Professor Collins says weight issues have increased dramatically since the 1960s when just 3 to 5 per cent of children were overweight or obese.

"Kids are meant to be skinny," she says. "The biggest skew has been about the way we eat rather than any link to physical activity. Clearly it's too easy to eat wrongly."

She blames the increased number of, and easier access to, processed foods as the worrying trend.

"Almost 70 per cent of children adhere to the national guidelines on physical activity (one hour of moderate exercise a day) whereas 35 per cent to 40 per cent of people eat too many of the wrong foods," Professor Collins says.

Nutritionist Rosemary Stanton agrees and warns that obesity in children sets them up for many health problems in the future, such as increased rates of type 2 diabetes as well as higher rates of cardiovascular and renal disease and more cancer, especially bowel cancer.

"But even during childhood, obesity causes problems with feet, knees and backs and psycho-social problems," Dr Stanton says. "Some obese children also develop fatty liver, type 2 diabetes and hypertension during childhood.

"Overweight and obesity were rare during the '60s. No national surveys were done then and kids were usually only weighed to ensure they were growing adequately.
 
"Old school photos show not more than an occasional child being overweight. Rates of excess weight in kids tripled between mid '80s and '90s. The increase came from drinks such as carbonated soft drinks and juices, fast foods and snack foods. There was no increase in 'core foods' [the foods from the five food groups]."
 
The best place to start on the road back to good health is in the lunchbox, followed by the after-school snacks.
 
Both experts say you should avoid making sweetened drinks, packaged snack foods such as crisps and bars and anything fried available to your children.

"The healthiest lunch and after-school foods are sandwiches," Dr Stanton says. "Include several for growing, active kids and fruit.

"Extras such as chips, muesli bars and sweetened drinks are not desirable. For snacks try fruit, milk or yoghurt, home-made smoothies using low-fat milk and yoghurt and fresh fruit, bread or toast including raisin toast, nuts and dried fruit."

Asked if any packaged foods at the supermarket are healthy, Dr Stanton nominates just two – dried fruit and nuts.

She says the key to improving what children eat at and after school is increasing the taxes on junk foods and drinks.

The Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) will launch Australia's healthy weight week in the last week of this month. Visit healthyweightweek.com.au for information on the healthiest options for during and after school.

Try this DAA recipe for an after-school pizza that is so easy children can do it themselves:

HEALTHY PIZZA IDEA

  • Spread tomato paste on pizza bases of pita bread or English muffins
  • Cover paste with chopped roast meats, tuna slices canned in spring water, onions, mushrooms, chopped capsicum, tomato, pineapple or grated cheese.
  • Grill or bake in the oven for 5-10 minutes.

LUNCH BOXES AND AFTER-SCHOOL SNACKS

The good

  • More than one sandwich or wrap – preferably with a protein filling such as chicken or tuna.
  • Raisin toast sandwich.
  • Fruit.
  • Salad.
  • Water and frozen reduced fat milk poppers.
  • Cereal with a banana after school.
  • Smoothies.
  • Dried fruit, nuts and homemade popcorn without butter.
  • Yoghurt.

The bad

  • Anything fried.
  • Juice poppers.
  • Soft drink or cordial.
  • Pre-packaged packets of crisps, sweet or savoury biscuits.
  • Pre-packaged cheese.
  • Muesli bars.
  • Fast foods.
  • Chips.