From a mother’s mouth: time-saving lunch boxes

Rita McLuckie, mother of Ethan – a Type 1 diabetes patient, shares her tips for time-saving lunch boxes.

As moms, we are ruled by routines. This may sound familiar to all mothers of all backgrounds, in all countries and of all cultures. Starting early in the morning, after getting ourselves presentable for the day and before heading off, for most of us, to a full day at work, there are many little things that need to be done. My biggest annoyance in the morning has always been “What do I pack in the kids lunch boxes today?”

Son is a fussy eater

I will be the first to admit that I am terrible at planning, I am indecisive and always running late. To top that, I have a extremely fussy eater in Ethan, my 10-year-old son. He has been living with Type 1 diabetes since he was 16 months old. Ethan also has epilepsy and is being treated for attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Some can say that fortunately the hunger-robbing Concerta is counteracted by the hunger-inducer Epilim. Though this is true to a certain degree, Ethan is naturally a person who does not enjoy eating. The only exception is when his blood sugar is dropping sharply, then he becomes a hungry little PacMan.

Thumbs down to an old-school sandwich

Neither of my sons (I have a teenage son Aiden) were ever particularly fond of the old-school favourite – the sandwich. This is a good thing though, since this traditional lunch box filler, coupled with fruit and the occasional treat, is high in carbohydrates.

Nonetheless, Ethan has to eat and because he is reluctant to eat bread, this presented a huge challenge for me. Ethan must eat to maintain good health. If I know he is eating I don’t worry about him at work. Also, Ethan is rather small for his age. With a BMI of 16, he cannot afford to lose any weight at all.

Adapt and plan ahead

As a result of my own tardiness and indecisiveness, and most of all ensuring Ethan has a good selection of snacks to choose from, I have had to adapt and plan ahead a little.

My way of coping is to pre-pack smallish snacks which I can then pop into both kids’ lunch boxes in the morning. The snacks that I tend to go for are: sliders or mini burgers, mini protein filled pancakes, mini pulled beef naanwiches, samosas etc. These are all readily available, with varying prices, from Checkers, Pick ‘n Pay or Woolworths.

I accompany the little convenient snacks with fruit, a dairy (usually different cheeses) and a protein, such as biltong, nuts, meatballs, sausages, fish fingers/cakes. I know that my inclusion of carbs will probably be frowned upon by many in the diabetic community. However, when you have a child who would rather do almost anything than eat, I have had to compromise.

Provide a choice

The whole purpose of the lunches I pack is so that Ethan can choose what he wants to eat. He is not expected to finish absolutely everything in his lunch box.

I write the carb value for each item in his lunch box on a Post-it or similar sized note paper. Once he has decided what he wants to eat, he boluses himself for the carbs for each of the items he has chosen to eat. This way, I don’t have to worry about his blood sugar dropping too low as a result of him not eating enough for the insulin he is injected.

When Ethan’s blood sugar has gone low, the quickest way to fix it, usually involves high-sugar foods or juices, provided by a panicked teacher or school staff member, which then inevitably causes a high blood glucose reading later.

Aftercare lunch

We are fortunate in that the school aftercare lunches Ethan receives are relatively healthy cooked meals with a fruit in the afternoon. If Ethan does not want to eat the aftercare lunch on a particular day, he usually still has some snacks in his lunch box to choose from.

Lunch in pictures

Below are images of my box of snacks, usually pre-packed by me on a Sunday evening, and the resulting lunch boxes from Monday to Friday.

Lunchbox planning


lunch box


lunch box


lunch box


lunch box


lunch box


Rita McLuckie lives in Benoni, Gauteng.

Agents for Change by Noy Pullen

Happier healthier lunch boxes for children

Why does a 30-second video called Japanese school lunches puts the rest of the world to shame have more than 42 million likes in a few days? What is the project The Grab 5 doing right when they can claim: ‘There definitely has been an improvement in behaviour and children are healthier now than they were a year ago’? Lunch boxes are changing. Lunch time is seen as part of education, not a break from it. Will South African schools join in happier healthier lunch boxes?


The World Health Organisation and the Basic Dietary Guidelines recommends that at least five portions of rainbow coloured food are consumed every day as part of a balanced diet. This advice is easy to understand and remember in theory, and psychologically strengthening, because it does not ask us to give something up. But, sadly, this is not happening.

The Diabetes South Africa (DSA) Agents for Change team knows that in the rural areas, most meals consist of brown and white (very little colour). According to a British project, The Grab 51, some children do not even have one coloured piece of fruit or vegetable per day.

Agents for Change model

We, at Agents for Change, target health providers, patients and families living with and working with diabetes and share creative ideas for changing habits. At a recent site visit with our international funders, World Diabetes Foundation, their project manager, Hanne Strandgaard, accompanied us to the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Rondebosch, Cape Town. We interacted with parents and children at the diabetes clinic and demonstrated simple effective ways of presenting healthy, economical and enticing food options.

Dr Steve Delport, the consulting endocrinologist, told us that his little patients kept darting in and out of his rooms to fetch another snack. The snacks definitely passed the taste test, especially the green grapes which Hanne placed on tooth picks and called green balloons. Her ‘boiled egg mice’ were also popular.

Happier healthier lunch boxes
‘Boiled egg mice’ with Vienna or ham slices for ears and chive tails prepared by Hanne Strandgaard from World Diabetes Foundation, Denmark.
Happier healthier lunch boxes
Noy Pullen replenishing a platter for the food demonstration of healthier snacks at the Diabetes Clinic at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town.

The fathers were most interested in tasting all snacks and finding out how to make them. Those who took part in this demonstration also had fun choosing from the available variety of tomatoes, cheese blocks, Vienna rounds, grapes, pawpaw, apple slices, and building their own ‘toothpick towers’. They were overjoyed at being given a copy of the booklet Rainbow in my kitchen14, which contains ideas of how to shop for a basic pantry, and recipes using whatever you have.

Self-feeding vs spoon-feeding

According to recent studies on eating habits of babies, nutritional ‘schooling’ starts long before schoolgoing age. Early healthy nutrition develops healthy balanced thinking processes and develops the subtle sense of knowing when you have had enough to eat.

Recent UK studies show that spoon-fed babies are more likely to become obese children6. If someone else shovels in the food (with the best motives), this bypasses this subtle sense. Let the children guide the way to what and how much they want to eat. The study shows that the self-feeders had a lower obesity rate than the spoon-fed children. Allowing them to choose from a selection of finger foods means they learn to regulate the amount they eat and are less likely to become overweight. They are also more likely to opt for healthier options than spoon-fed babies, who tend to favour sweet things.

The study suggests infants weaned through the baby-led approach learn to regulate their food, resulting in lower body mass index and a preference for healthy foods. This has implications for combating the well-documented rise in obesity in society. Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said, “Babies have this wonderful rapport with their mother when breastfeeding and indicate how much milk they want and when they are ready to go on to solids.” Adding, “It is important they experience all five food groups and experiment with variety as much as possible. If half of it finishes on the floor, so be it – the value of experimentation in the early months of nutrition is incalculable and babies won’t willingly starve themselves.”

The study comprised 92 children who had been weaned on finger foods and 63 who were traditionally spoon-fed. Parents filled in questionnaires on how their children had been weaned, including how often they ate certain foods when they were aged six months and six years.

The Grab 5 project research

Aiming for a holistic approach to school lunches and healthy tuck shop, they found:

  • Well-fed pupils are calmer and concentrate better.
  • Well-fed pupils have fewer days off due to illness.
  • School food activities, such as tasting events and playground markets, are good ways to involve parents and community groups in school life.
  • School food activities, such as cooking, growing and tasting, are often good ways to engage children that are otherwise reluctant to get involved in school life.
  • Serving meals and snacks increases school revenue and children develop a positive attitude towards what they eat.
  • Curriculum links with food projects and events bring subjects alive and are responsible for healthier more socialised children1.

How can we change the school food environment?

  • Free fresh fruit and vegetable food tasting tables offered to pupils at the tuckshop. This would be a gradual means of finding out what they like and introducing them to new foods textures, colours and combinations.
  • Integrating talks on nutrition about all food groups and their service to the body – energy foods (carbohydrates), protection foods (vegetables and fruit), nutrients (milk products), building foods (meat and other protein) and food that protects our nerves (fats)4. Tasting tables prepared by children in the classroom.
  • A visit to a fruit and veg shop or food farmer.
  • Introducing practical demonstrations of how to put food together in balanced, fun healthy and economical combinations. This could be done in the form of fund raising projects, and help to wean children off the unhealthy options offered in tuck shops.

  • Introducing all aspects of food into the curriculum in each age group. This would involve maths – budgeting, ordering and invoicing, being able to apply the concept of a planned balanced meal; science – cooking, processes of heating and freezing; biology – learning the various components of hygiene, digesting and nutrition, portion sizes etc.; life-skills – co-operation through supervised preparation of and cooking of simple dishes and clearing up; geography – cultural differences in serving and eating; horticulture – encouraging children to ‘grow their own’ simple bean or spinach plants and to demonstrate sprouting of various pulses and seeds for immediate micro-nutrients.
  • Developing new standards for the tuck shop stock e.g. practical fruit and vegetables options, bread sticks, plain popcorn or sprinkled with healthy herb salts, crumpets with honey, natural yoghurt with chopped fruit and toasted snacks5,6,7,8,9,10..
  • The more children taste different kinds of fruit and vegetables, prepared in different kinds of ways, the more they will learn to like them. It is a learning curve for children to try new foods. Exploring new tastes is an educational adventure in itself.

A working model for schools

In Japan, children’s lunch time is part of the curriculum, where fresh simple meals are made from scratch by pupils in rotation for less than $2,50 (roughly R35) per day. They study the menu and cultural history, and assess the nutritional value. The children prepare, cook and serve the meal and then clear up. This teaches cooperation and manners. They harvest from their own gardens where possible. It is no wonder that they have one of the lowest obesity rates in the world.

As the first verse of the song The Greatest Love of All says:

I believe the children are our future
Teach them well and let them lead the way
Show them all the beauty they possess inside
Give them a sense of pride to make it easier
Let the children’s laughter remind us how we used to be

Please contact Noy Pullen if you would like more information on her resources: [email protected] or 072 258 7132.