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


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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.

How to plan your workday lunch box

The 1st to the 7th of July is Corporate Wellness Week, and Pick n Pay encourages you to pick up healthy eating habits at work.

The foods you eat at work are important to your overall health, productivity and well-being. Planning appropriate meals and snacks helps to maintain normal blood glucose levels, helps you meet your nutrient requirements each day, prevents you from snacking on more energy dense foods, which could cause weight gain in the long term, and helps you sustain your energy levels throughout the work day.

Choose 1 to 2 foods from each of the food groups below to build your balanced lunch box for work:

Lean protein
Roast chicken breast cut into strips
Chicken drum sticks
Boiled egg
Smoked chicken breast
Lean shaved turkey, chicken, ham (whole muscle)
Lean biltong
Toasted, flavoured chickpeas
Meat leftovers from previous night’s dinner
Carrot sticks / baby carrots
Cherry tomatoes
Mange tout
Cucumber sticks
Celery sticks
Bell pepper strips
Green beans
Vegetable kebabs
Snap peas
Lettuce (for wraps and sandwich fillings)
Vegetable chips
Mini fruit kebabs
Apple pieces
Banana chips
Pear sticks
Melon cubes
Any whole fruit chopped into bite-sized serving
Mozzarella cheese
Cottage cheese
Milk carton
Drinking yoghurt without added sugar
Plain yoghurt
Homemade dairy smoothie
High fibre starchy food
Beans, chickpeas or legumes (in a salad)
Mini whole-wheat wrap
Whole-wheat roll
Whole-wheat pita
Whole-wheat pasta
Pearl Barley
Brown rice
Baby potato
Potato wedges
Sweet potato wedges
Popcorn (unsalted)
High fibre crackers
Mini corn
Sweet corn
Mini oat/bran/apple muffins
Plain instant oats
Healthy fat
Reduced oil salad cream
Peanut butter without added sugar
Peanuts and raisins (unsalted)
Raw nuts
Low-fat dressings and dips
Bean dip

Other tips:

  • Remember to drink water throughout the workday – keep a jug or bottle on your desk for frequent sipping.
  • Keep your lunch safe in a clean insulated lunch box or bag. If possible, store the perishable foods in your lunch box in a fridge, or use a small re-freezable ice pack to help keep your food cold.

MEET OUR EXPERT - Leanne Kiezer

Registered Dietitian BSc Diet, PgD Diet UKZN, MSc Nutrition NWU. Leanne joined Pick n Pay as the resident dietitian in May 2014. She is the voice behind the Pick n Pay Health Hotline, providing advice to customers on a range of nutrition and health-related topics. She also provides nutrition input as part of the Pick n Pay food development team, and ensures that all communication is in line with the most recent advances in nutrition science and research.

Need some ideas of healthy lunch box snacks to pack for work?

Pick n Pay provides you with a few nutritious, easy-to-prepare and convenient to pack lunch box solutions here!

Roast veg chicken wrap
Vegetable crisps
Chicken kebabs peanut sauce
Veggie sandwich

Shopping List

The ingredients referred to in the recipes above are available from Pick n Pay:
Vegetables and fruit
Roasting vegetables
Baby marrow
Sweet potato
Red cabbage
Harissa paste
Lemon juice
Coconut milk
Red curry paste
Soy sauce
Plain yoghurt
Fat-reduced feta
Legumes and lentils
Tinned chickpeas
Wooden skewers
Rotisserie chicken
Chicken breasts
Whole wheat fusilli
Whole wheat spaghetti
Whole wheat penne
Fats and oils
Canola oil
Sugar-free peanut butter
Herbs and spices
Fresh coriander
Black pepper
Starchy foods
Whole-wheat wraps
Dumpy, low-GI, wholegrain, seeded bread

Pick n Pay is committed to promoting health and wellbeing among South Africans, and employs the services of a registered dietitian to provide food and nutrition-related advice to the public. For all your nutrition and health-related queries, email [email protected] or call 0800 11 22 88.

Lunch options at the workplace

Lunch is the second most important meal of the day. However, this is the meal that is often neglected because of poor planning, poor shopping practices, work constrains and most often lack of allocating some time to sit down and enjoy the meal. Ria Catsicas offers lunch options at the workplace to avoid skipping this meal.

Lunch should be planned to take all lifestyle practices, environment as well as practical facilities available to you in consideration. Lunch ideally should be consumed no later than 15h00 in the afternoon.

Work cafeteria or make use of the kitchen at the workplace

The best lunch meal to consume in summer is a salad bowl. The challenge is to keep it interesting and varied.

A nutritionally balanced salad bowl should consist of a healthy source of protein, carbohydrate, vegetables and fat. This balanced combination will provide you with the sustained energy required to perform throughout the afternoon. By combining the following menu items shown below, you can achieve this objective:

One portion of lean protein: boiled egg or chicken (use leftovers from supper) or canned fish (tuna chunks, mackerel, salmon, tomato pilchards, sardines (oil/water drained)) or low-fat cheese (ricotta/cottage) or sliced lean cold meats (ham/pastrami). (Ideal for their low saturated fat content and the fish for their high omega-3 fatty acid content).


One portion of starch: corn kernels (canned/frozen), brown/wild rice (leftovers) or chickpeas or lentils or all types of beans (canned). (Ideal for their high fibre content, low-glycaemic index).


A variety of vegetables: beetroot, tomatoes, broccoli florets, green beans, gherkins, cabbage, carrots, mange tout, variety of lettuce, cucumber, leftover vegetables e.g. peas, roasted butternut etc. (Ideal for their content of fibre, vitamins, minerals and phyto chemicals).


One portion of fat: “Lite” mayonnaise or avocado pear, olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar or commercial low oil vinaigrette dressing. (Ideal for their high content of mono unsaturated fats). 

In winter, the salad bowl can be swapped for a bowl of chunky vegetable soup. Once again keep it interesting and varied by creating different combos, combining a variety of lean proteins (cut up chicken breast or canned lentils or beans or lean beef and marrow bones) and whole grains (canned corn wild brown rice or barley).

For those of us who love cooking, there is nothing better than cooking a delicious beef barley vegetable soup on the weekend, ready to bring to work during the week. Alternatively, buying a pre -prepared vegetable soup and creating combos at work, easy to mix and to warm in the microwave oven is recommended. Examples are a Lentil corn vegetable soup or Bean brown rice vegetable soup.

Lunch on the road or no kitchen available at the workplace

The lunch box menu shown below will provide you with the necessary carbohydrates, protein, fats, fibre, vitamins and minerals your body requires. Eating a well-balanced lunch box daily will ensure that you achieve optimal blood glucose control throughout the afternoon. In addition, packing your own lunch box is more economical.

A balanced lunch box consists of the following: starch, protein, fruit and a portion of vegetables.

FRUIT Strawberries


Sliced pear Fruit kebabs Sliced pawpaw Orange
STARCH Health bread filled with Wholegrain crackers spread with peanut butter Whole wheat pita bread filled with Pasta tuna salad Durum wheat pasta (penne) mix with Carrot and bran muffin served with
PROTEIN Egg, boiled and sliced 1 x 175ml low-fat fruit/plain yoghurt Chicken breast-sliced and mixed with Canned tuna chunks (oil drained) Low-fat grated cheese
VEGETABLE Sugar-snap peas, baby corn, baby carrots Cucumber sticks, baby tomatoes chopped tomato and lettuce Mix with a variety of vegetables Baby carrots and gherkins
FAT Lite mayonnaise Peanut butter Lite mayo Low-oil honey-mustard dressing Lite margarine
TREATS (optional) Handful cranberries 6 Dry apricots 1 handful of biltong (fat removed) Dry fruit bar 1 handful of nuts

Emergency ‘back-up’ lunch

It is recommended to always keep a few items in the cupboard at work as a back-up in case you don’t have time to pack your lunch box. Easy nutritious foods are canned fish, or John West tuna packs, chunky flavoured low-fat cottage cheese or lean cold meats (pastrami or turkey) served on whole grain low-fat crackers, such as Provita or Ryvita. Enjoy the fish/cheese and crackers with a mug of vegetable soup (canned) in winter. In summer, the soup can be replaced with one portion of fresh fruit.

Healthy fast foods

If you are spending your lunch time on the road and you forgot your lunch box at home, you should choose a healthy fast food meal. The following fast food choices are lower in fat and have lower glycaemic load than the unhealthy options:

Something Fishy, Fishaways – order a portion of grilled fish, ½ portion of rice and a double portion of coleslaw.                                                        

Nandos: order a small portion ¼ chicken (remove skin) combined with spicy rice, Portuguese salad, vegetables and coleslaw or the Vitality meal that consists of ¼ chicken portion, corn on the cob and a green salad.                                                                                    

Sushi bars: limit the rice portion of sushi by ordering Miso soup or edamame beans combined with sashimi and sushi pieces (limit sushi portions to 3 to 4 per meal).                                  

Chinese: order healthy choices such as beef or chicken chow main. Ask for ½ portion steamed rice and double portion vegetables.

Indian: order a bean or chicken curry as well as a vegetable curry with a ¼ portion rice (avoid the Naan bread and Roti).    

Note: larger portion of starch can be enjoyed if you are doing carb-counting and adjust your insulin accordingly.

Unhealthy fast foods include burgers and chips, pizzas, wraps, shawarmas, vetkoek, boerewors rolls, pap and meat, Bunny chows, fish and chips, Russian and chips and Prego rolls.

MEET OUR EXPERT - Ria Catsicas

Ria Catsicas
Ria Catsicas is a dietitian in private practice and completed a master’s degree in nutrition. She has a special interest in the nutritional management of chronic diseases of lifestyle and authored a book The Nutritional Solution to Diabetes.