Parents who face the daily dilemma of packing healthy meals for their picky eaters can now outsource the responsibility to lunch box services that have mushroomed in the country.
Taking the guess-work out of a wholesome lunch for schoolchildren and delivering it piping hot to their classroom is what Little Lunch, which launched in November, proposes to time-strapped parents.
"We give parents the flexibility as if they were making packed lunches themselves," says Edward Newton, the managing director of Little Lunch, that delivers about 300 meals to primary schoolchildren every day.
"They do not have to get up at 6am in the morning to prepare lunches for their kids."
After a school registers for the service, parents sign up on the website for a minimum of three lunches every week. Once the child's preferences and allergies are filled in, families select from a menu of more than 100 combinations that include all the food groups.
"The portion sizes are created according to the age group. As a parent, it is difficult to ensure that on a daily basis," says Newton.
All meals have a sandwich using bread baked fresh daily for the carb fix. The lunch box that is packaged to resemble the McDonald's Happy Meal has a salad, fruit and juice or water in it as well. Parents can opt to add a morning snack, dairy and dessert to the order.
"We try to source our produce locally and use fresh items as far as possible," says Newton.
Schools are revising their lunch box policies as the health and education authorities intensify their drive to promote healthy eating.
The Greenfield Community School's handbook outlines the food types that are allowed on campus. "It also informs each family of the increase in food allergies and that the school does not allow nuts of any type in school," says Angela Hollington, the principal of the school.
Many schools have removed fizzy drinks and crisps from canteen menus. Parents are also encouraged to avoid highly processed and oily food in their children's lunch boxes.
Nathalie Haddad, the managing director and dietician at Right Bite, which began a lunch box programme last year, said its services made it easier for parents to follow the school rules.
"There is an increasing need to educate and highlight healthy eating options," says Haddad, who consults several parents seeking advice on how best to feed their kids. "Many working parents do not have the time to put it all together."
Right Bite meals have complex carbohydrates and protein-based mains, a fruit, vegetables and dairy. "We do not use artificial flavours in the meals," says Haddad.
Rania Halawani, a dietician at Medgate Centre in Dubai, says such services can steer children away from snacking on junk and unhealthy canteen food, but must not fully substitute kitchen-based lessons.
"I always recommend parents and kids to be involved in food preparation," says Halawani. "For kids, it's a fun way to learn about healthy food and it encourages them to eat what they've prepared. Parents should give kids choices to pick from and not force them to eat something they don't like - there is always an alternative."
Halawani says meals provided from outside did not help develop long-lasting habits.
Haddad says the dietician works with the child to select the meals. "Children are actively involved in the process and this becomes an educational tool."
For Sheryl Porbanderwalla, handing the task to such specialised caterers is convenient given her busy work schedule.
"I sometimes do not have the time to go out shopping," says Porbanderwalla, whose 7-year-old son receives his Little Lunch at school. "And sometimes we just stuff things in their box without giving it a thought. This way they get their regular intake of necessary food and nutrients.
"A chicken sandwich, fruits, yogurt and a juice is what they need to keep them going in the day. All this is delivered fresh and warm, so we do not even have to worry about it getting spoilt."
A well-put-together lunch box is a way to instil life-long healthy-eating practices and keep junk food temptations at bay.
According to Rania Halawani, a dietician at Medgate Centre in Dubai, a well-balanced lunch for a schoolchild should include carbohydrates from wholemeal breads, pasta or rice and proteins that are found in eggs, chicken, beans and nuts. A dairy product such as low-fat milk, cheese or yogurt is a source of calcium while adding fruit and vegetables will provide the daily amount of fibre, vitamins and minerals that children need. Energy drinks, fruit drinks with sugar, crisps, biscuits, chocolates and anything fried should be avoided.
Halawani offers the following advice while putting together lunch box meals:
The meal should be simple and easy/ready to eat - not requiring any preparation such as peeling, chopping, etc.
Variation is important to ensure your kids are getting different kinds of nutrients and to avoid them getting bored.
Food stays in the pack for a long time. Advise your kids to keep it in a cool place and not in a sunny area.
Food such as milk, eggs, yogurt and different kinds of meat should be consumed within four hours after preparation and should not be packed while still hot.
Pick an insulated box and include some ice packs inside to keep food fresh and to avoid food poisoning.
Encourage your children to take their lunch from home, limiting the temptation of buying unhealthy food from outside.