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Don’t fall victim to the lunchbox syndrome

By Jean-Christian Gagnon, PSP Ottawa Health Promotion – 

We’re back to school! This exciting and stressful time for some marks the beginning of a new chapter for our children and means adjustments to get back into the routine of the school year. One of the big adjustments that parents of young children have to make is preparing lunch boxes, a habit that is often abandoned during the summer months. Even if you aren’t a parent of young children, this article applies to you too because lunch box syndrome is something that we all face!

Are you sick and tired of eating ham sandwiches? Or would you simply like to discover other menu options for your lunch box and/or your children’s? Preparing full, nutritious and tasty lunch boxes does not necessarily have to be a daunting task. Whatever your reason for reading this article, we hope that the hints and tips found on the web and presented below will prove useful in adding some refinement to your lunch boxes, while keeping in mind two essential ingredients: simplicity and taste!


  1. Prioritize real fruit rather than boxes of fruit juices or sugary beverages

In both children and adults, sweet taste leads to the release of dopamine into the nucleus accumbens, a region of the brain that plays a central role in the reward and motivation circuit. Although this part of the brain is essential for our survival, it also has its faults, hence the importance of exercising conscious (or parental) control so as not to fall into its abyss. The 200 mL juice boxes contain on average 5 teaspoons of sugar (20 g), yet the World Health Organization recommends limiting consumption of free sugars (i.e. sugars added to foods by manufacturers) by children to 6 teaspoons (24 g) per day. 100% pure juice is a healthier choice than fruit cocktail or punch, which contain more empty calories (i.e., free sugars). As a parent, you play a vital role in your child’s eating habits. Replace sugary juices and beverages as much as possible with foods in which sugar is naturally present such as fruit, which have fewer calories and contain fibre. Your children will thank you later.

  1. Add a delicious note to your children’s lunch box

As nutritionist Hélène Laurendeau puts it so well, lunch is the only link to home that children have when they are in school. A little note in your child’s lunch box can certainly enhance their lunch, and its effect can be even more important in the digital age. Warning: May not have the desired effect if you try this experiment with your 16-year-old.

  1. Break down lunch for fun and simplicity

Children like to eat their food their own way. Between a beef fricassee, potatoes and other vegetables smothered in a creamy sauce and lunch with these same ingredients but separated, your child is most likely to have a preference for the latter. While adults may find this hard to understand, separated food can make it look like a picnic to children, giving them a greater sense of pleasure during their meal. The main concern of parents is that children eat the food that is offered to them so that they can have all the nutrients needed to promote good growth. Simplify your life by putting this tip into practice! You may even consider investing in Bento boxes with multiple compartments that can carry mains and sides in one container. It’s a bit like a Schneiders’ Lunchmate box, except it’s homemade and much healthier if you fill it up properly! (No need to clarify that we do not endorse Schneiders’ Lunchmate boxes.)

  1. Encourage your children to participate in the “lunch box game”

Who says that the preparation of lunch boxes must necessarily be a chore? Look on the activity as a game with your children and involve them in planning and preparing their lunch box. If playing the game takes longer than you’d like, suggest that your child participate only once or twice a week. As noted above, children like to add their own touch to their meals and the art of eating them. Encourage your children to use their bountiful creativity when it comes to their lunch box. This is also a golden opportunity to educate them on healthy eating and compromise!


  1. Prepare two or three main-dish salads for your work week in advance. You can eat them as is or as an accompaniment to the leftovers of the previous day’s dinner. You can go one step further by keeping two homemade dressings ready to use in the refrigerator.
  2. Plan snacks that you will like. It is perfectly normal to experience a slump in energy during your work day. A common reflex is to go and buy a small treat at the corner store to give yourself a boost, which is perfectly justified from time to time. If you recognize yourself in this example, a potential strategy is to bring a homemade snack to satisfy your daily cravings (such as a muffin or chocolate and peanut butter energy ball that you can freeze). This way, you won’t overspend at the downstairs bakery and you’ll be eating healthier gourmet snacks!
  3. Go for the leftovers! When you’re cooking, increase the number of portions so that you can enjoy the leftovers as part of your week’s lunches. You can use the leftovers of a meal for the next day’s lunch or freeze them for later. This is a practical option for those who are often last minute in their lunch box preparation!
  4. Aim for 3! Make sure your lunch contains foods from at least three of the four food groups in Canada’s Food Guide. For example: bits of chicken, rice, vegetables and wham! Easy, no?
  5. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. One of the best tips is not to strive for perfection, but to do your best to make small changes to your current eating habits. Preparing healthy lunch boxes requires a conscious effort, but is much simpler than you think!

If you are interested in becoming more resourceful when it comes to food, the PSP Health Promotion office in Ottawa is here to help! Visit our webpage to discover and register for our free workshops on healthy eating and a variety of other topics to help you move towards better health!

Let’s eat!


References and Resources: (French only)


This post is also available in: Français (French)

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