I think most of us agree the fruit is a healthy choice and although I am not jumping on the ‘anti-fructose’ bandwagon, it definitely is possible to have too much of a good thing when it comes to the number of serves and the serving sizes of fruit, or anything for that matter.
This issue of too much fruit, particularly for kids, has been on my mind for a while. The other day I asked via Facebook what you always pack in your kid’s lunchboxes and I think everyone who commented indicated that fruit was always packed. Although fruit is a great staple to include in lunchboxes and eat every day, I did notice a bit of a trend with people going overboard with fruit -but of course this issue of ‘portion distortion’ and overeating extends well beyond fruit in the lunchbox.
This morning I dropped my daughter off at her daycare and noticed that although they were dishing out what they perceived to be a healthy morning tea (crackers, cheese and sultanas), the serving sizes were way too big for these little tummies.
Too much of a good thing
Even if we are loading our plates with fruits and even veggies with the perception that we are doing the ‘right’ thing, it is completely possible to overdo it (keep in mind that although this is possible ~98% of people don’t eat enough veggies), and just like when you over eat anything the risk is excess energy which equals weight gain and/or displacing of other equally important nutrients found in other foods – Eating 50 carrots a day and skipping on other foods is not a good nutritional plan.
Using the example of fruit in the lunchbox, across no age or gender group is more than 2 serves of fruit per day recommended. In fact children up to the age of 8 years only 1.5 serves of fruit is recommended and under the age of 3 this recommendation is even less. One serving of fruit is equal to 1 medium apple, banana or pear or 2 small fruit such as apricots – this guide is based on providing 150g of edible fruit. When it comes to dried fruit it is important to remember that it is a concentrated form of fresh fruit and our serving sizes need to adjust accordingly – 30g or 1.5tablespoons of sultanas is plenty (I would say that each toddler at my daughters daycare was given about ½ a cup or more each, plus excess cheese and 4 crackers each!)
With these recommendations in mind, I limit fruit in my kids lunchbox to 1 serve and let them have their other ½ serve (as appropriate for the ages of my kids) either with their breakfast or afternoon tea.
Swapping Good for Better
Now in no way am I recommending that you swap servings of fresh fruit with packaged or processed snack options. What we really need to be working on is replacing some of this fruit with vegetables, as a first priority, and/or other whole foods from within the other food groups (not ‘discretionary foods). The Australian Guide to Healthy Eating groups food based on the nutrients that food provides, with each group of food and the comprising nutrients, playing an important role in overall health – thus a balance intake is important. I realise that lately the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating has coped a lot of flak and I want to reassure you that this visual representation of an evidence-based approach to a dietary model for good health for an entire population, is highly credible (if you think that was a mouthful to read, imagine how difficult it was to succinct over 55,000 scientific journal articles into a 1 page graphic appropriate to an entire population– I think they did a pretty decent job). I think the key thing to remember when interpreting this image is that unprocessed foods across all the food groups is preferential even if this is not obvious (yes, it is expected that if you have allergies, intolerances or personal preferences that you adjust accordingly; also remember, that like nutrition science in general, this Guide is not static, it is under review as evidence develops and the usability will ideally develop too).
The right balance
Obviously telling you to give your kids vegetables instead of fruit is easier said than done, but not impossible.
A small container of tin corn, corn on the cob (either raw or steamed and cooled), carrot, cucumber, celery or capsicum sticks, small mushrooms, beans or cherry tomatoes are all favourites of my kids and perfect for lunchboxes. Chunks of avocado are also popular – I usually through them in with some corn, chopped capsicum and fresh herbs to make a little salsa salad. Dips are also a great place to hide veggies – try this corn dip, hummus or sundried tomato & chickpea dip.
Overall to get the balance right in a lunchbox aim to fill half with vegetables, ¼ with whole grains and ¼ with lean protein (this doesn’t have to be meat, try seeds, nuts (if allowed), eggs, baked beans, lentil or chickpeas –which also count as veg), and include a serve of fruit and a serve of milk, cheese or alternative (basically a rich source of calcium) on the side.
The Healthy Lunchbox Guide includes all the information you need to pack a well-balanced lunchbox and includes a weekly lunchbox planner, shopping list and recipes. You can also check out my lunchbox gallery here.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.