My baby girl is off to nursery! Ok, so she’s not been a baby for a while. And it’s only 2 mornings a week. And she’s been at home longer than most kids are before nursery. But still…
I’m sure every mother who has ever had to drop their child off at nursery for the first time has had this same feeling. Butterflies in your stomach. Worry. Guilt. Questioning everything. Praying it’s a good decision. Hoping that they’ll love it. Knowing that they probably will.
Because really, most of us have very fond, if somewhat hazy, memories of preschool. But now I am the parent. I’m experiencing the other side of it. And I’m starting to think maybe, even if they cry and cling to your leg when you try to leave, it might just be the mums and dads who have it harder. Who miss them more. Who worry more. I certainly seem to be far more of a nervous wreck about the upcoming settling-in dates than my three-year-old, who is eagerly counting down the days!
So I am distracting myself by thinking, as I love to do, about food. Specifically lunchboxes. A whole new world opened up to me. And whole new horrors to discover, Why, why, why do companies insist on slapping “healthy” and “100% fruit” and “no refined sugar” on kids’ food items and then list honey, maple syrup, dried fruit, dates, fruit juice and more names for sugar on their labels? I was shocked to discover a couple of years ago that fruit yogurts often have more sugar than ice cream. But it seems that lunch box ideas and prepared foods are just as depressing statistics, being crammed full of sugar and vegetable oils at every possible turn. I feel for parents having to do this every day. Because seriously – how can you avoid it? How can you know? And who has the time to prepare sugar free lunches anyway?
So I’ve been doing some research. You all know how much I love my research. And it turns out, a sugar free lunchbox is not much time or effort away. There’s a simple trick to it: planning ahead.
Now, I’m not always very good at this. But I’m getting better. In fact, my meal planning has been so consistently good lately that I wrote a short e-book about it to share with you how I have managed to plan the week’s meals in less than half an hour, which you can find here.
And it looks like getting better at planning is going to come in very handy when it comes to a healthy lunchbox. Because with clever planning, I can prep the week’s lunchboxes in just a little time spent batch-cooking at the weekend. I love when it’s that easy!
I try to keep in mind (or physically in front of me by printing this off) how a balanced plate looks: 1/2 vegetables (+ a little fruit), 1/4 protein, 1/4 wholegrains + a small bit of good fats or dairy. Bento-style lunchboxes like this one are really really useful for this as you can literally fill compartments accordingly and keep liquids and solids separate so things don’t get mushy or unappetising.
Also, if there is one thing that has been a complete lifesaver when it comes to lunches in general in our house it is a set of small cookie cutters or Bento cutters. We have these, and can use them to chop vegetables and fruits into fun shapes. It always amazes me how much more the kids will eat when it looks fun!
So here are some wonderful recipes that can be easily made in bulk, portioned out, and kept in the fridge or freezer ready to pull out and stuff into a lunchbox at a moment’s notice. Batch-cooking a few of these recipes and chilling or freezing in portions, as well as chopping/prepping a load of fruit and vegetables and keeping fresh in containers in the fridge mean I can assemble a lunchbox in minutes each morning!
- Sarah Wilson’s Kid-Friendly Chicken (KFC) Drumsticks – make a big batch and chuck them into the lunchbox cold, alongside some undressed coleslaw mix (or just grated red cabbage and carrot) mixed with olive oil-based mayonnaise.
- Asparagus & Olive Loaf – this loaf already has veggies in it! Just top with a little cheese, butter or cooked meat, serve with a few more veggies if you like, and add a small tub of fresh fruit.
- Mix and Match Savoury Muffins – you can change up the flavour based on what you have on hand or what your kids love most. I always try and include at least one vegetable and use wholemeal flour. You can make a really big batch of these once every couple of weeks or once a month and freeze them, then just thaw them overnight and add to the lunchbox. Add some vegetables (cooked or raw) and maybe a homemade or sugar free dip and some fresh fruit, and you’ve got a delicious balanced meal!
- Sausage & Egg McMuffin – not just for breakfast, this meal has hidden vegetables and will somehow still be the envy of all their friends! Add in some fruit on the side et voila!
- Chickpea Curry – our family loves this quick & easy curry, but no one more so than my almost two-year-old. I always chuck in a large handful of frozen spinach towards the end to up the veggies in it, and I find it tastes even better after resting, so making a batch at the weekend and portioning it out for a few lunches in the week actually works in its favour! Served with a little cooked rice or a sugar free naan bread, with a small serve of fresh fruit makes for a yummy balanced meal.
- 3-Bean Tuna Salad – easy, filling, balanced, perfect. Serve as is or with a little cooked quinoa or wholemeal couscous, and add a serve of fruit and yogurt or cream as a “pudding”.
- Sweet Potato & Vegetable Kebabs with Mango BBQ Dipping Sauce – whenever I make this, my kids consume twice as many veggies as I’ve ever seen them do for any other meal. I’ve never seen vegetables disappear so quickly, and the sugar free BBQ sauce is incredible. It is a balanced meal in and of itself, although you could add a little cooked meat or fish alongside it if you liked…
- Courgette & Feta Hotcakes – we love these for breakfast, but they would also be delicious served cold for lunch with a bit of ham or bacon and some extra vegetables and fruit!
9. Squash & Apple Soup – one of my daughter’s all-time favourite recipes, this soup is sweet and warming and completely delicious! It helps that it also has just a few ingredients and takes little time and effort to make. You can make a big batch and freeze it in portions easily and just defrost overnight ready to pour in their flask for lunch. Delicious with some (ideally homemade) sugar free wholemeal bread and a hunk of cheese!
10. Spiced Red Lentil & Root Vegetable Soup – go easy on the spices if your little one is not a fan of hot foods, but this filling soup is a great silky smooth vegetable-packed one to send kids to school with alongside a handful of sugar snap peas and a slice of sugar free bread. Throw in a few berries and yogurt and you’ve got yourself a lovely balanced meal.
11. Broccoli Soup – such an easy way to get broccoli into kids, this soup is creamy and surprisingly sweet. The cheese toasties make a lovely addition, and alongside some fruit, you’ve got a totally balanced meal!
Dips, Sauces, Side Bits:
12. Pea & Broad Bean Dip – sweet, pesto-like and perfect as a dip or sandwich spread, or even stirred through pasta for a cold salad.
13. White Bean Dip – smooth and creamy, and perfect served with a selection of multi-coloured veggies (think beetroots, carrots, broccoli, cucumber, cauliflower, roasted sweet potatoes…).
14. Mini Crustless Quiches – there are a million-and-one variations on these, just mix-and-match leftover or favourite ingredients. Include a couple of veggies and perhaps some meat and/or cheese. These will keep in the fridge for a few days, so make a batch for the school week and chuck a couple in alongside some extra veggies and fruit for a quick and yummy kid-friendly lunch.
15. Cauliflower Cheese Nuggets – easy to batch cook and freeze, these nuggets are delicious and a great portion of veggies. Pile them into a lunchbox with a sugar free dip and a bit of cooked meat or beans, some extra veggies and fruit.
17. Homemade Mini Cheddars – I was SO excited to find this recipe. Everyone in our family enjoys Mini Cheddars but we rarely have them. They may not contain much sugar, but the list of ingredients they do include definitely makes it a treat food in our house. So to be able to make a big batch of my own with all real ingredients easily and cheaply, well, I call that a win!
18. Pumpkin & Ginger Muffins – easy, one-bowl, can be frozen for up to a month and thawed in the freezer overnight before adding to the lunchbox (you even get some orange vegetables in your kids with these!).
19. Nutrigrain-Style Bars – my sugar free take on the shop-bought sugary bars, these are easy to wrap individually and freeze or chill until needed (up to 5 days in the fridge or 2 months in the freezer) when you can just chuck them (defrosted) into a lunchbox as a treat (maybe with an embarrassing note?).
20. Sugar Free Nutella – this is one of my absolute favourite I Quit Sugar recipes. It tastes better than the high sugar shop version and can be spread on sugar free waffles, rolled crepes or bread (or even just served as a dip with fruit) to bring a smile to any child’s face!
21. Chocolate Chip Cookies – a low sugar treat that’s a perfect end-of-week one. It’s also great to make after school as an occasional fun snack!
22. Peanut Butter Swirl Brownies – decadent and delicious, they won’t miss the sugar in these at all!
23. Green Smoothie – this is a yummy sugar free drink that makes a wonderful treat (you can’t taste the greens, I promise).
24. Sugar Free Chocolate Milk – I recommend cutting back the sweetener each time you include this until they can happily drink it with as little as possible, if any. My daughter likes hers with just cinnamon now, and strangely enough, I have come to love it this way, too!
25. Infused Water – I was definitely to be underwhelmed by the new-ish infused water drink, but some of them are truly amazing! Rhubarb and ginger is a personal favourite, while my kids like anything with berries and spend most of the time trying to pick the berries out before they drink the water! This link has a tonne of great ideas for combinations. Plain old water (still or sparkling), plain full-fat milk, and coconut water also make good alternatives to soft drinks and flavoured sugary squashes, fruit juice and other high sugar drinks like flavoured milks.
Looking for more ideas? Check out my “Lunchboxes” Pinterest board here.