Ticking all the boxes when it comes to the lunch challenge

Lessons in creating appetising lunch boxes, despite school restrictions or food allergies, could benefit many parents

As busy parents know, the need to plan a healthy, nutritious and inspiring lunch box each day can take some planning. Add to that the question of allergy and food restrictions in schools and it can make school lunches even more of a challenge.

So how best then to keep all children safe while avoiding an overreliance on boring ham sambos?

Safefood is an all-island body which supports and promotes food safety and nutrition in Ireland. Its Healthy Lunchbox literature is available on safefood.eu and in many schools around the country.

It suggests lunch boxes contain two portions from the cereals and bread group, one portion from the meat or “meat alternative group”, one portion of dairy and at least one portion of fruit or vegetable.


Allergy risk
Safefood's information includes a handy lunch box planner and some good tips around food hygiene and storage though, notably, it contains some suggestions which may not be allowed in schools because of allergies to foods such as peanut, egg and fish.

Ruth Charles is a paediatric nutritionist and a mother with a special interest in allergies who runs Nutrikids, a children's nutrition consultation service.

She explains that the most common food allergies in children are to dairy, eggs, peanut, tree nut and shellfish, though a shellfish allergy may not be identified until a child is older.

Charles says it is essential that any suspected allergy be diagnosed properly by a professional such as a community or private paediatric dietitian to prevent severe reaction, but also to counter issues such as faddy eating and poor nutrition due to the avoidance of certain foods or food groups.

Anaphylaxis Ireland has, along with the Asthma Society of Ireland, Diabetes Federation of Ireland and Brainwave, The Irish Epilepsy Association, produced a comprehensive resource pack for parents and teachers called Managing Chronic Health Conditions at School.

'Safe food'
In terms of food allergy and anaphylaxis, it offers advice to schools on best medical and maintenance practice and on the need to implement "safe food" on party days in school, to look out for allergens in bird seed, contaminated recycled craft materials (eg, cereal boxes), eggs in cooking class and the sharing of musical instruments such as tin whistles.

The European Academy of Allergy and Clinical Immunology (EAACI) states that 17 million people in Europe currently suffer from a food allergy and that the largest increase is seen in young people, with available research “indicating a seven-fold increase in hospital admissions for severe allergic reactions in children in the last 10 years”.

The EAACI states that up to two-thirds of schools across Europe have at least one child at risk of anaphylaxis and that many schools “may be unprepared to deal with it”.

Ruth Charles says that “where there is a serious food allergy identified in a child, it is important for parents and nutritionists to work with the school to ensure that they know what to do in the event of a severe reaction and to teach them how to use the child’s adrenalin pen”.

Charles believes the best stance that can be taken is the implementation of a no food-sharing policy.

“You tend not to see severe reactions in places like school or at home. You tend to see reactions when people take risks – teenagers who don’t care about what they’re eating or don’t bring their adrenalin pen with them or children who are in the care of someone who ‘doesn’t believe in a food allergy’.”

Anaphalaxis Ireland says that, "The question whether to ban nuts or not from a particular class or from an entire school may arise.

“This decision must be made on a case-by-case basis taking into account health and safety considerations and will also depend on the age of the student.”

So for those with food allergies or their friends in school, is it possible to eat healthily while avoiding known food allergens? Food author, TV chef, mum and proprietor of Ballyknocken House and Cookery School, Catherine Fulvio, believes so and suggests getting kids involved in the preparation of their own lunches.

“Ask them to choose from the food groups while chatting about the benefits of a healthy lunch which will give them loads of energy, keep their minds on the ball and keep them hydrated.

“When filling lunch boxes keep colour in mind and a variety of foods.

“Include easy finger foods like berries, bunches of grapes, cherry tomatoes, mini-corn spears or melon pieces,” suggests Fulvio.

“Try chopped dried fruits like apricots and cranberries and pumpkin seeds. Use other breads instead of the old sambos such as wholemeal baps, granary rolls, wraps or even homemade soda bread which the children could bake themselves.”

Best-selling author Annabel Karmel is widely considered to be the goddess of children's food with 27 publications on the subject, a food range and a snack range with Disney.

Karmel tells The Irish Times that "getting inspired with lunch boxes is so hard and finding healthy food that you know they are going to eat is even harder. It is all about trying to get a good balance in your child's lunch box".

“Make a pasta salad using pasta from the night before and pack it up with a separate pot of an interesting dressing.

“Peel or chop fruit or vegetable sticks such as carrot and wrap them in cling film with a dip like hummus or their favourite yoghurt – this will make it far more likely to be eaten,” says Karmel.

Useful suggestions
Other tips include cutting fruit into straw shapes and placing an emphasis on taste: "The only way I could get my children to eat salad was by making a delicious dressing.

“You can put any flavours in this but it needs to have a basis of oil, vinegar (such as lemon juice or balsamic vinegar), salt and pepper and a little of something sweet like honey or sugar,” she says.

The question of food allergies is a serious one for schools, parents and, most essentially, the children themselves.

“You’re trying to balance the dilemma of trying to keep things as normal for children in school as possible without being one extreme or the other and at the same time making things safe,” says Ruth Charles.

Anaphylaxis Ireland says, “It is ideal if the school can develop a supportive environment where the allergic student and the wider school population become educated about managing allergy.

“The school can help an allergic student grow and learn how to handle risks and peer pressure, how to handle social situations, to speak up and to read labels.

“This must be done without stigmatising the student”.

nutrikids.ie; irishanaphylaxis.org