Tina Mizgalski believes providing healthy food for her two young girls (Ella, age 6 and Ruby, age 2) is most important for navigating nutritional choices in their later life.
Tina Mizgalski believes providing healthy food for her two young girls (Ella, age 6 and Ruby, age 2) is most important for navigating nutritional choices in their later life. Photo: Katherine Griffiths

Every morsel that enters her children's mouths matters to Tina Mizgalski. And she is pleased both the ACT and Federal Government are starting to care just as much by reforming school canteen culture.

I don't understand why you would make lollies available at school. 

Tina Mizgalski

While Mizgalski, a public servant, and her husband, building designer Adam Hobill, have demanding jobs, they are passionate foodies and their commitment to feeding Ella, 6, and Ruby, 2, a wide range of healthy fare often means late nights and early mornings in the kitchen.

Mizgalski and Hobill have a simple philosophy around food - the girls eat what mum and dad eat, and food should be organic where possible, fresh, and as close to its natural state as possible. Often it comes from their own vegetable patch.

They shy away from processed food, including "low-fat" or "diet" anything, and believe full-fat milk and organic butter are fine in moderation, and sugar should rarely, if ever, be added to anything.

Mizgalski rises early to prepare school and childcare lunches each morning and Ruby amazes her carers with her tubs of curries, minestrones, pastas and salads.

But things are a little more complex for Ella, who feels a bit more peer pressure at school and who occasionally has the freedom to navigate her school canteen.

For Mizgalski, it has been a disappointing introduction to the state of food in schools generally, given many canteens not only offer highly processed chips, pies, hot dogs and ice creams but often sell lollies. "I don't understand why you would make lollies available to kids at school," she says. "They are what I consider to be a party food or an at-home food. It's not that I condemn lollies but at school the food available to children through the canteen should reflect the curriculum of health education."

Mizgalski is an active member of Ella's school's Parents and Friends committee and has been pleased to see some healthy changes recently made to the menu with the introduction of salad rolls, fresh chicken-breast burgers, a fresh garden salad with optional grilled chicken breast, fruit salad cups and frozen yoghurt.

"I think the culture around traditional canteen food is all wrong. Tuck-shop day should be about encouraging healthy eating messages among children and also complement what is taught in the classroom," she says.

She believes that by encouraging her children to eat a variety of wholesome foods they are more likely to make healthy choices later. Hobill's bowel cancer in 2010 has also heightened the family's sensitivity to health and nutrition.

That's not to say Mizgalski does not succumb to exhaustion keeping up with the shopping, cooking and gardening that goes with her wholesome ideals.

"Of course I press the snooze button three times and sometimes we cut corners with prepared foods that I don't think are great."

She tries not to feel too guilty when a packet of Tiny Teddies occasionally makes it into her girls' lunchboxes.

"We are realists about life and accept that junk is a part of it, but we hope that what the girls are taught at home will enforce their nutritional foundations in the long run."

The kids have tried McDonalds and her parents don't temper Ella's desire for junk food when she is at a party.

"I understand I have less control there but it's hard for me to let go because at the end of a party where Ella has eaten junk, she wigs out, and I have to deal with her behaviour. But I also know that she can see the change in her own behaviour too… and that's a good start in understanding the impact of food on your body."

In the meantime, Mizgalski has returned to her routine of early morning lunch packing and looks forward to healthier options on tuck-shop day - her dream being a canteen that that involves the children and uses school vegetable gardens. And she and Hobill will continue to delight in seeing their daughters dip into a tub of mung beans, or a pot of unsweetened Greek yoghurt with berries on top.

"At the end of the day their lunchboxes come home empty, so what more could a mum want than that?"

Back to school nutrition tips

1. Processed meats are a common sandwich filling but can be high in sodium (salt) and fat. Choose lean varieties that contain less than 750mg of sodium per 100g.

2. The Dietary Guidelines for Australians encourage reduced fat dairy for everyone over the age of two.

3. Beware of processed fruit snacks; these are often high in added sugar, making them similar to confectionary. Dried fruit and fruit leathers should be 100 per cent fruit.

4. Choose fruits canned in juice rather than syrup.

5. Wholegrain breads are best. If you have fussy eaters that will only eat white bread, choose varieties that contain added fibre.

6. In dairy desserts, check milk is the first ingredient and aim for serve sizes less than 200g.

7. Fruit juices should contain at least 99 per cent juice. Despite their vitamin content, fruit juices are naturally high in sugar so limit serve sizes to 250ml or less and to one a day.

8. Plain air-popped popcorn is a nutritious alternative to eating crisps.

9. Baked beans are nutrition superstars, providing fibre and protein to fill hungry tummies and carbohydrate for concentration. Choose salt-reduced.

10. Pizzas can be healthy when you use English muffins or pita bread for the base, a scrape of tomato paste, plenty of vegetables and a sprinkle of reduced fat cheese.