Healthy food for kids on the go

Given the time pressures most families face (think work, study, extra-curricular activities, competing schedules), the quick win of an ultra-processed snack is appealing, but too many too often can have long term impacts on our children’s weight and wellbeing.

We also know children’s extra-curricular activities are on the rise, so these tensions aren’t going away. There’s argument both for and against scheduling activities for our kids. Yet no-one denies busy families are challenged, putting pressure on family meals, sleep and down-time: all linked to mental wellbeing and healthy weight ranges.

Granted, there are multiple and complex factors that influence wellbeing and obesity rates, but let’s talk about a piece of the pie (see what we did there?!) that families can control—healthy food for kids on the go.

Health and Wellbeing Queensland’s Public Health Nutritionist Rebecca Watson says nutritious foods and plenty of water are so important for active kids.

“With kids growing both physically and mentally, a nutritious and varied diet provides the energy and nutrients needed to learn, grow and play,” said Rebecca.

Most children need three nutritious main meals and 1-3 snacks a day, depending on how active they are.

“What we may not realise is the knock-on effect that our diet can have on sleep quality, and vis versa” Rebecca said.

What we eat and when we eat can impact sleep quality and we know sleep loss is a risk factor for obesity in children.

“Regular healthy food and drinks support kids to have both active days and restful nights” she said.

So how do we strike a balance in this busy, busy world?

The good news is that with a little planning, you can make sure your busy kids are fuelled with nourishing on-the-go snacks and meals.

Become a planning ninja

If you can carve out just a little bit of time over the week or weekend, you can prepare for the coming days. Start off simple and you will be amazed at how much impact even a little bit of meal prep can have.

Here’s eight tips to becoming a planning ninja:

  1. Make a plan—it doesn’t have to be every meal and snack. Start small and achievable
  2. Make a shopping list (and for those able, order groceries online)
  3. Crank up the music while you prep, cook and pack a lunchbox: music makes everything better
  4. Make a prep stash of veggies each week (think about a rainbow of foods such as capsicum, carrots, celery, cucumber, cherry tomatoes): wash, cut and store in the fridge
  5. Use frozen or tinned veggies: they’re aok!
  6. Include a mix of known and new recipes—using known recipes can help reduce your mental load and new recipes can give kids the opportunity to explore different foods
  7. Get yourself the right containers: think flow…from freezer to lunchbox
  8. Ask the family to help plan meals for the week and get them involved at mealtimes: whose turn is it to set the table?

Visit Growing good habits for more meal planning tips.

School’s out: choose the right snack

Healthy after-school snacks can keep kids alert and active, while helping them regulate the amount of food they eat at the evening meal.

With school sometimes a place for socialisation as much as it is for learning, we’ve all heard the I-didn’t-get-time-to-finish-my-lunch song, which makes for ravenous post-school kids. Throw a growth spurt into the mix, an afternoon of physical education, after-school activities, and what have you got? A recipe for a very hungry belly!

“Focus on offering up veggies, fruit, wholegrains and other foods from the five food groups that satisfies hunger much better than ultra-processed options.”

“Packaged foods can be a practical and convenient option but it’s important to know what to look for. Check out the first three items on the ingredients list – if these are added sugar, saturated fat (for example cream, butter, chocolate), or salt, it might not be the healthiest choice for growing bodies and minds, and are best kept as ‘sometimes’ foods.” Rebecca said.

Consider too that kids and teens involved in all-day competitions or lots of sporting activities may need more food to keep up with increased energy demands. Snacks like fruit, frozen yoghurt or a nut butter sandwich are good options to help with post-exercise recovery and can soothe a hangry (hungry + angry) teen prior to the main meal.

Learn to identify other ingredients or names for added sugar, fat or salt.

Food literally on the go

Check out these nutritious and delicious snack ideas and resources:

And if the afternoon merges into the evening and it’s all too much, check out our tips on how to avoid the drive-through dash.

A word on food safety

For some families, food for afternoon snacking needs to be packed early in the morning, which poses food safety risks—and can limit choices. Cue your freezer to get in on the act and you’ll be well on your way to feeling like the driver, and not the passenger, when it comes to meal preparation, planning and food safety.

Armed with an insulated bag and ice bricks, many snack options that start the day frozen will last the distance.

Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate

“Hydration is vital for all kids, and water is always the best drink for health, academic and sports performance,” explains Rebecca.

“Ensuring kids get enough water, especially on hot days, is really important as it helps regulate body temperature and prevent dehydration, which can lead to headaches, lethargy, constipation, and more severe dehydration requiring immediate medical attention.

Keeping kids hydrated also helps regulate hunger—as even the slightest drop in hydration levels can mimic hunger.

“A standard 600mL sports drink has around nine teaspoons of sugar, an amount that often surprises people—and kids simply don’t need these drinks to play well or rehydrate. Water wins every time.”

Drinking plenty of water and eating well will replenish the body and help kids to feel great, both on and off the field.

A focus on healthy eating over numbers

And finally, let’s focus on the big picture—family wellbeing. We get it. Some days the wheels fall of the trolley. The point is to consider overall, this week, this month, have you mostly had meals and snacks made at home with love: some fruit and lots of vegetables? Be kind to yourself and make small changes where you can.

The focus for our little (and medium-sized) people should always be to create a love of nutritious food. While sometimes it’s helpful to ensure they are eating the right number of kilojoules or getting enough carbohydrates, protein and fat (otherwise known as macronutrients), the focus on nutritious foods will help create positive long-term eating habits—and that’s the main game.