Paula Goodyer

No packaged food in lunch boxes.
Smart choices ... It's not just about what food goes into the lunchbox but what packaging is involved too. Photo: Anita Jones

Putting fewer packages in school lunchboxes does more than reduce waste – it could also make for a healthier lunch.

Compared to fresh foods, pre-packaged food often contains more kilojoules, fat, sugar and salt, according to the Dietitians Association of Australia spokeswoman, Pip Golley.

"Kids might love food that comes in packets, but we also have to get the message across about reducing the amount of waste going into landfill and now many Australian schools do this by encouraging litter-free lunches,” she says.

The average lunch-toting school child generates 30 kilos of litter each year, according to the Queensland Government's Sustainable Schools website – no surprise considering all the drink boxes, cheese sticks and muesli bars, as well as kilometres of cling film and foil that go into wrapping food.

Some parents also provide children with so many packaged snacks that fresh foods such as sandwiches and fruit go uneaten, says dietitian Liz Beavis.

“This can stem from fears that a child won't have enough to eat or perhaps their child is a fussy eater and they want to throw as many choices as possible at them,” she says.

“It's fine to give kids choices but you can do that by letting them choose a different snack for each day of the week, for instance. If a child is a fussy eater it can help if they're involved in planning what goes into the lunchbox."

But with so many small reusable containers now available to fit into lunchboxes, it's easy to make food portable without relying on zip-lock bags or pre-packaged snacks. Beavis suggests filling small containers with snacks such as cheese cubes or sliced cheese and crackers, homemade popcorn, roasted chickpeas, or a serve of yoghurt .

Along with reusable spoons and forks – and zero disposable packaging – the ideal lunchbox needs:

  • Protein – skinless poultry, fish, lean meat, dairy products, legumes or nuts (if allowed).
  • Vegetables – while avocado or a few crisp leaves in sandwiches can last the distance, too much salad can turn bread soggy. Try packing easy-to-eat vegetables such as tiny tomatoes, snow peas, sticks of celery, carrot or cucumber in a container, maybe with an extra container of dip or ricotta.
  • Fruit – create your own fruit snack packs with grapes, cherries or peach slices in a reusable container.
  • Water – dehydration can make concentration flag.
  • Slowly digested carbs for concentration – such as grainy bread, rolls or fruit bread, wholemeal pita pockets or wraps. Homemade muffins are okay, but use wholemeal flour and go easy on the sugar. Other options: pasta salads with vegetables, rice salads based on basmati and/or brown rice with diced vegetables such as capsicum, celery, corn kernels and carrot, seeds and tamari dressing.

What if the school is nut free?

“We never had to avoid nuts in lunchboxes in our day,” is a frequently heard complaint from parents, many of whom resent having to comply with nut-free policies in some schools, says Beavis. But like it or not, food allergies are more common than in generations past and if nut-free policies seem extreme that's because, for some children, reactions to even a tiny amount of peanut can also be extreme.

“A smear of peanut butter seems harmless but it only takes a trace of peanut residue to pass from a sticky fingered five year old to the monkey bars to risk an allergic reaction in a sensitive child," she explains.

While reactions severe enough to kill are rare – especially as Epipens are widely available – they do happen. About three children die from food allergy each year in NSW, according to the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Allergy Unit.

The foods most likely to be banned in schools are nuts, followed by eggs, says Beavis, who has a special interest in food allergies and intolerances. Some schools also prohibit dairy foods and fish but these bans are less common.

Given that nuts and eggs are common ingredients in so many products, how do you keep them out of a lunchbox if the school demands it? School policies can vary so the first thing is to be clear about exactly what your school excludes.

With nut-free policies, nuts of any kind, along with any nut butter (not just peanut) and Nutella are off the menu. But parents also need to scan ingredient lists of other products, especially muesli bars, chocolate, biscuits and dips, and avoid foods such as pesto, satay sauce, and anything containing almond meal, including macaroons, Beavis says.

"But it's only foods where nuts are included in the ingredient list that are a problem. Foods that say 'may contain traces of nuts' are okay in most schools. Nut-free doesn't apply to coconut either,” she adds.

Egg free policies are less common, but mean avoiding foods such as meringues and, again, macaroons, which contain a lot of egg white, as well as frittatas, hard boiled eggs and egg sandwiches. But cakes and muffins baked with eggs are acceptable in some schools, she says.

Paula Goodyer writes a weekly blog Chew on This for Life & Style. This story was originally published in that section in January 2012.