School lunches

Buy lunchboxes for school to make meals more creative. Picture: LANCE SEETO

With the kid’s back to school, their health and nutrition should be top of mind if parents are to have the best chance for their children to have a top education. Learning to understand and concentrating on what is being taught in school will determine their future career choices. It’s not rocket science to understand that a growing child needs the right foods to not only fuel the brain for memory and concentration, but to sustain their growth and strengthen their immunity into adulthood. However it’s not always easy to get the kid’s to eat healthier foods, especially if good dietary habits are not practiced at home by parents or guardians. Children learn eating habits from an early age. If they see mum and dad drink high-sugar drinks, they will want the same. In last week’s episode we discussed the addictiveness of sugar. Once a young child gets the taste of sweetness and fried foods at an early age, it is near impossible to reverse their tastes as they reach school age. The battle against junk foods is an uphill one that most families fight everyday, but the longer it is kept away from infants and small children the better the chance to get them eating healthy foods as they grow.

School canteen’s play important role Whilst parents bare ultimate responsibility for their child’s eating habits, school canteens have much to answer for once they reach school age. The sale of fried and overly salty and sweet foods in school canteens around the world has been severely limited, with the majority of menus offering fresh and nutritional choices. The challenge for Fijian school canteens is to balance the realities of commercial business with the health of their customers – the kids. Sure, some will complain it’s all too healthy and the kid’s just want fried chips but the overall responsibility for any school institution should be one of duty of care, and that includes promoting healthy dietary habits.

Avoid the word “healthy” If kids hear that a food is healthy, they may shy away from it. “Healthy” may sound like boring or tasteless to some children! To prevent this rejection, empower the foods you give your kids through education. One of the easiest ways to explain this to children is to share with them the ancestral diet of your people. For the iTaukei, the diet that sustained the ancestors for thousands of years – without NCDs – was simply fresh fi sh, vegetables, root crops, fruits, and plenty of coconut. For those of Indian or Chinese descent, their ancestral diet was majority vegetables with a small portion of meat and seafood, tossed in aromatic spices and sauces. They also included plenty of the “water foods” including watermelon, pawpaw, pineapple, cabbage, leafy green vegetables and hot tea. For those of European ancestry, the concept of meat and three vegetables unpinned a diet that was also rich in legumes, beans, fruits and fresh water. Eating healthy doesn’t mean to eat bland foods, it simply means to eat more of the nutritional foods.

Visible treats Supermarkets are notorious for displaying junk chips and candy near the cashier, and most often displayed low for kids to see (and pester their parents to buy!). The same goes at home. If you leave sweet and salty foods around the house, you can’t blame the kids for reaching into the cupboard when they’re hungry. Swap out the junk for more nutritious and cultural choices like a ready made fresh fruit salad, or leftover desserts like a vudi vakasoso or a bowl of Indian vermicelli kheer.

Rainbow game The next time you go grocery shopping with your kids, make it a game and ask them to get a fruit or vegetable from every color of the rainbow. When they are empowered to pick their own produce, they are more likely to try them. Each of the coloured fruits or vegetables contain specific vitamins and minerals. You may not know what they all are but you can turn this into a fun game of asking the kids what coloured foods have they not eaten today. The vitamin C-enriched foods are most important as vit C is one of the essential medicine foods that we need daily to repair and strengthen our immune system, and research suggests that it is also a natural fat burner. These include all the citrus fruits like oranges, lemons and lime, as well as pawpaw, capsicum, pineapple and tomato. Eat the rainbow!

Decisions, decisions, decisions Let your kids have some control when it comes to their meals. For example, when making a sandwich for school lunch, give them whole grain bread options to choose from such as tortilla wraps. Ask them to make their own school sandwiches the night before, or get them up early in the morning to make it more fresh. A fun way to entice children to make their own lunches is to remind them how proud they’ll be at school when their friends see their parcel of fresh, homemade treats. For those budding young cooks, there’s opportunity to show off their cooking knowledge to school friends. My mother used to pack me roast pork (char siu) and plum sauce sandwiches, which made my friends so envious that they asked to swap their cheese and vegemite sandwich! If you are making a smoothie, ask what fruits, vegetables and herbs they want to combine. By including your kids in these decisions, they will be more likely to eat their meals. This fun game gives the children the chance to try different combinations of fruits, vegetables, spices and herbs like ginger, mint, basil, cinnamon, nutmeg and even honey. On your way home, stop at a local coconut vendor to buy a juicy ‘bu’ to use in their drinks. Empowering children to learn where all their ingredients come from is an important step to give them more ideas to decide on their own.

Hands on The Fijian culture of only having the older women and men in the kitchen can discourage or limit a child’s knowledge of food and cooking. Give your kids some easy tasks in the kitchen (with close supervision of course!). For instance, let them wash and tear up lettuce or clean vegetables, encourage them to sprinkle on pizza toppings, or let them stir and mix up ingredients in a curry pot. If you’re planning a lovo, get the children to suggest marinades to add more flavour, and offer them leftovers for the next day’s lunch box. When children get hands on experience in the kitchen, they’ll be more inclined to eat their own creations. Overseas research shows that kids who spend more time in the kitchen, choose a wider range of foods and veer towards making healthier decisions. The more they know and have experienced in the kitchen, the more knowledge they have. In fact, these kids are also able to vocalize what they like and dislike, helping parents plan ahead for the future.

Added nutrition Sneaking healthy ingredients into your normal cooking is another way to get the family to add more nutrition to home cooked meals. When baking cookies, add rolled oats for a boost of fiber or use whole-wheat fl our instead of white fl our. The same goes for roti; add cooked lentils or dhal into the fl our dough. A packet of instant soup noodles offers very little nutrition but add in some leftover meats or light vegetables like gobi cabbage or moca spinach to turn this favorite Fijian snack into a more healthy meal. When your kids smell hot, fresh and homemade healthy treats, they won’t even know the difference!

Go and grow local Take a trip to your local outdoor market with your kids and look at the fresh produce and local products. Let them ask questions, take samples, touch and smell the food. It’s a pleasant and open atmosphere to look at the varieties of colors, shapes, sizes and the abundance of choices. Exposing kids to a variety of options can get them excited to try and take on new adventures. If you have space in your yard, buy some seeds or seedlings and get the children to grow and look after their own produce. This gives them responsibility and understanding of how to grow their own medicinal foods.

Fill their lunchbox with variety If getting your children to take more healthy food to school sounds hard, then this episode of Exotic Delights may help give you ideas to change their perception. When we gave a group of children the choice of fresh, homecooked foods to fill their own lunchbox, the results were pleasantly surprising. Some packed more, some packed less, but the overall result was that when you give them more variety of lunch foods they will make nearly always make the right decision and fill their boxes with nutritional foods. As parents, we just need to put more of the good foods in front of them and not give them a choice. And don’t be lazy and give them pocket money to buy their own lunch. Inevitably, they’ll choose junk over goodness.

Visit Chef Lance Seeto at his KANU restaurant this long weekend and experience his Asian fusion recipes of pineapple.

More Stories