I got 99 problems – but a grain ain’t one

I’ve been channelling Alf Stewart again.  It’s something that comes over me at times of intense frustration – like when my children decide to barge through the toilet door the moment I have closed it and sat down… or in this case it’s when celebrity chefs decide they need to reeducate the nation about feeding their families.  Not according to evidence-based guidelines developed by research bodies throughout the world, but according to their own skewed beliefs and practices.

The Almonds are activated! (Image: Sunday Life, The Australian)

The Almonds are activated! I repeat: The almonds are activated! (Image: Sunday Life)

If you haven’t yet heard, Celebrity chef Pete Evans’ latest bit of Facebook grandstanding has him promising to bring his version of healthy eating into schools across Australia – and his Facebook fans – the anti-dietititian brigade – can barely contain themselves.  He hasn’t yet told us what exactly his ‘Healthy School Lunches’ program will entail, but if we are to go by his recent spot in the Australian (‘6 foods I never stock at home’), it might look something like this:

No grains.  That means goodbye to the humble sandwich and sushi roll (sorry mum). This also extends to meat that was fed grains, in case you’re wondering.

No dairy.  Because apparently no-one in his family can digest it.  And sorry (!) but soy alternatives such as tofu and soy milk are also bad for us  – proving 130 million Japanese resoundingly clueless.

No sugar (Pete goes into convulsions at the mere mention of sugar).  That seemingly innocent combination of glucose and fructose apparently causes all manner of physical and psychological disturbances, according to…. well… him.  But don’t fear, because pure maple syrup and raw honey are tickety-boo.

No vegetable oils.  Pete reckons vegetable oils are toxic.

Gee, that’s quite a bit there on the bad list Pete.  So which foods does he give his blessing to?

Nuts and seeds.  I’m right here with you Pete – these are great foods.  Activate away!

Fibrous organic vegetables.  Awesome.  Fibre is good.  Organic is nice.. if you have the funds.  We should probably all eat more vegetables.

Herbs and spices and naturally fermented foods.  No argument here.  Hey -I wonder if the sludgey banana I found at the bottom of my daughter’s bag would count as a naturally fermented superfood?!

Organic, free range, 100% pasteurised meat, poultry and eggs and hand-caught salmon from sustainable waters.   These are all good things.  Very expensive good things.  But here’s where the value judgements start to creep in – because surely if we just cared enough about our family, we’d all scrape around and find the money to eat organic?    

Coconut oil. Yes of course coconut oil.  Coconut oil is so hot right now. Because of it’s high smoke point right? (see what I did there) and it’s apparent lack of ‘toxicity’.  He also allows virgin olive oil at times, but favours lard and tallow as healthy cooking options at home.  Mmmm…

What about fruit? I hear you ask.  Fruit didn’t rate a mention – evidently it wasn’t downright evil enough to make the naughty list, or pure enough to make the nice list.  Does that mean I should give up practicing my apple swan lunch box art?  Humph.


Now you’re probably thinking at this point – gee she’s really got her knickers in a knot over this one.  And yes, this is out of character for a dietitian who isn’t usually very dietitian-like about food.  It takes a bit for me to get my hackles up, but man they’re up.  My inner Alf Stewart (in his gravelly tones) has been baiting me:  ‘C’mon girly – are you gonna let that dingbat with his flamin’ activated almonds get away with this rot?’

No Alf.  I won’t stand for it.  I’m going to clamber up onto my soap-box and let rip.  Here goes..

As a dietiitan, I see people every week who are utterly bamboozled by conflicting dietary advice.  They no longer know who to believe, and many have lost the instinct which tells them whether they’re hungry or full.  Guilt is a big theme.  They ask me about the 5:2 diet, whether they should Quit Sugar or detox, and whether dairy is good or bad.  The ones who eat well are also taking spirulina and popping vitamins, and the ones who eat crap don’t don’t really give a crap.so hot right now

I’m very familiar with actual food allergies/intolerances and the restrictive and socially isolating diets that some need to follow.   Food allergy sucks.  Coeliac disease is not fun. And food intolerance symptoms can be genuinely distressing.  But I’m also encountering more and more clients who appear to be hiding their frankly disordered eating habits behind the veil of food intolerance or ‘special’ requirements.

Like the woman I saw recently, who over ten years, had whittled her diet down to only eggs (6-8/day), cream and butter, pork, chicken and lamb.  She avoided all grains and all fruits and vegetables except potato (which she fried in duck fat) and banana (100g/day).  Her blood cholesterol was a whopping 19mmol.  But in the immediate future she needed a psychologist more than she needed a dietitian.

And I suppose that’s why I get so worked up about diets that are all about restriction, and self-appointed ‘experts’ like Pete, who advocate them.  They promote the idea that eating to a certain formula will make you better, cleaner, stronger.  Through mainstream and social media, they subtly pervade the public conscious, encouraging confusion and needless anxiety around food.which diet?

Do we want to teach our kids that foods have either good or bad moral values?  Do we want to risk strengthening the foundation for disordered eating, in those who are most vulnerable?  As the mother of a nearly eight year-old daughter, the idea terrifies me.  And I wonder if the thousands who ‘like’ and ‘share’ Pete’s grandiose school lunch plans have really thought this through?

Pete obviously has passion for what he does – and that’s great for him, and the upwardly mobile, alternative-aligned punters with whom the paleo movement resonates.  But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here.  He’s a TV chef with nutrition qualifications from an ‘Institute Of Wellness’, and quite frankly, he’s no Jamie Oliver.

I prefer a bit of common sense and moderation, myself.  I learn from my colleagues, who blog with intelligence and perspective – like Dr Tim Crowe from http://www.thinkingnutrition.com.au – who presents the science in lovely bite-sized, helpful chunks.  And http://www.thenutritionguruandthechef.com – a breath of fresh air in cyberspace in the form of no-nonsense, cut-the-crap good food.

So how about we all just calm down (that’s you included Alf), practice a bit of moderation, and agree that different styles of eating suit different people.  If we cook real food at home, eat plenty of plants, eat less processed food and stop when we’re full, I figure that’s a pretty good start.

(now if you’ll excuse me – I’m just popping down to the shops for some organic free range offal and giant mushrooms to make this paleo burger for the kids lunch tomorrow)

Burnt chop syndrome (and other real life lunch scenarios)

Well I can’t blame an evil publishing giant this time, but tonight I’m clambering back on to my school lunch soapbox.   You see, last night it took me no less than 40 minutes to assemble three sets of kinder/school/work lunches.  Seriously.  And as I finally snapped the lid on the last box I wondered – what is wrong with me? Surely it shouldn’t be that hard.

But after debriefing with friends today, I find it’s not just me.  Evidently, there is a certain state of mojo required to expedite a school lunch.  And if you’re not feeling it, you’re in trouble.

Now in retrospect I have to admit that the wine (and the resultant CBF state of mind) probably didn’t help.  But I also blame the cute kleptomaniac who now lives with us.


I’m sorry? What is the sweet potato you’re referring to?

At one stage I had to give chase in order to wrestle a sweet potato from her jaws (mental note: never look other way with pantry door ajar).  A moment later I turned around to find her balancing on top of the rubbish bin – looking simultaneously gobsmacked and delighted by her own daredevil feat.  And seemingly every two minutes from that point, I was downing tools to rescue various household objects or human appendages from her needle-sharp choppers.

Added to the amusing puppy antics, it seemed like every plastic container I sought out was either missing a lid, needing to be washed, or had mysteriously vanished from the face of the earth.

So what did the lunch boxes finally consist of?  As you can see below, I seem to have peaked early, with child 1.  By the time it came to packing my own lunch, I was functioning solely on autopilot, and all I could muster was a Vegemite sandwich.  I was suffering a bad case of burnt chop syndrome.

burnt chop syndrome (school lunches)

Anyway, burnt chop or not, it got me thinking about the other unfortunate school lunch scenarios I’ve encountered over the years.  And here’s a sample of my top five.

Can I hear a few ‘HELL YEAH‘s in the house?!

Scenario 1.  The Incorrect Fruit

Mother:  (unpacking lunch box)  Why didn’t you eat your banana today?!

Child:  (looking revolted) Because I hate bananas.

Mother:  No you don’t – you like bananas.  You can’t tell me you don’t like bananas.

Child:  No I DON’T like bananas and you don’t know because you’re NOT ME.

Mother:  (breathes deeply) You ate two bananas yesterday.  Of your own volition.

Child: (sulking) Well I don’t like them when they’re black and squishy.

Mother:  Now come on – I put that banana in your lunch this morning and it was not black and squishy then.  It’s black and squishy now because it’s been thrown around in the bottom of your bag all day.

Child:  (stoney-faced) Well I don’t like bananas anymore OKAY?

Outcome:  Mother mentally crosses banana off ‘acceptable fruit’ list, sighs and absentmindedly takes bite of squishy banana (then forces self to chew and swallow when realises child is watching intently).  Mother looks at bowl full of bananas purchased that day, and inwardly screams.

Banksy bananas

(image: Jez)

Scenario 2.  The Incorrect Cheese

Mother: (unpacking lunch box) Why didn’t you eat your cheese today?!

Child:  Because it looked funny.

Mother: What do you mean it looked funny?  It was just cheese.

Child:  But it didn’t have a picture on it.

Mother:  That’s because I cut it off a block of cheese.

Child:  (withering look) Well I only like the wrapper cheeses.

Mother: But the wrapper ones cost $60/kg, and the block of cheese is the same thing but costs $15/kg. I don’t see what the problem is?

Child:  It IS NOT the same!  Your cheese is disgusting!

Outcome:  Mother feels defeated by marketing conglomerates and pours glass of wine.  In future, mother buys ‘pretty’ cheese with strange girl or robot faces on the wrapper in order to provide cheese option which child will actually consume. Child / marketing company celebrate.

Acceptable cheeses

Scenario 3:  Sandwich Rage

Mother:  Okay, quickly now, would you like ham/cheese/tomato, or turkey/cranberry lettuce, or tuna/celery/mayonnaise in your sandwich?

Child:  Jam.

Mother: (visibly tenses) I didn’t offer jam.  What about cream cheese/carrot/sultana?

Child: (deadpans):  Honey.

Mother:  (through clenched teeth)  Are you serious?!  ARE YOU!?

Child: (defiantly) Well I don’t feel like any of those options!  Why can’t I just have jam?

Mother:  (in small, tight voice) Because you had jam yesterday.  Because you can’t have jam every day.  Because you need to eat VEGETABLES!

Child: (sighs dramatically) Okay well give me cheese then.

Mother:  (no words… Stalks to fridge, takes cheese slices and slams into sandwich, throws into lunch box)

Child: (face crumples and begins to wail dramatically) Why do you have to be so grumpy at me?  You don’t even LIKE me!  (stamps ridiculously out of room).

Outcome:  Mother feels simultaneously furious (for being stamped out on), dejected (over recurrent lunch drama), mean (over shouting and sandwich slamming) and exhausted (always exhausted).

Husband enters kitchen with ‘what’s all this about’ look on face and receives ‘don’t look at me that way’ face in return.  Mother wonders what is wrong with her as she is already shouting at 8am, when she had vowed it would be a shout-free day.

The terrified sandwich

The terrified sandwich (image: Sakurako Kitsa)

Scenario 4:  The ‘Forgotten’ Lunch

Child:  What’s for afternoon tea?  I’m starving.

Mother:  (staring in disbelief at contents of lunch box)  You didn’t eat ANY of your lunch today!  What is going on?

Child:  Oh.  I forgot.

Mother:  (still incredulous)  What do you mean you forgot?  How can you forget to have lunch?

Child: (looking furtive)  Well it was Lucy’s birthday and she bought in cupcakes.

Mother: Yes…?

Child:  And Charlotte’s mum was on canteen so we got a lolly snake and Jumpys.

Mother:  And so I wasted my time packing you a healthy lunch today, so that you could eat lollies and cake all day instead?

Child: (angelically)  I didn’t waste ALL of it – I ate the Tiny Teddies at recess.

Outcome:  Mother throws sandwich in bin, feeling her life is one big cliche, and curses self for implementing spartan Mon-Thurs no drinking rule.  Mental stocktake of house for any form of liquor uncovers half bottle of sticky in fridge from weekend entertaining.  Mother wonders at acceptability of drinking dessert wine before dinner.

Is this a thing?  This should really be a thing..

Is this a thing? (this should really be a thing)

Scenario 5:  No Bread In House

Mother:  So sweetie, we seem to have run out of bread.  You’ll have to have biscuits and cheese today.

Actually..  sorry.. I think these biscuits are a bit stale.

Child: I’ll have to have a lunch order!

Mother: (sounding upbeat) No no, I’ll just make an antipasto plate for you – you don’t need to have bread every day.

Child: (uncomfortable with deviation from the norm)  But I just want a sandwich…

Mother:  How about some…. baby beetroot… and some crab dip… and some chorizo and rice crackers…?

Child:  (panicking now)  Why haven’t we got any bread!? I can’t eat any of that – I need a lunch order!

Mother:  (slowly losing resolve) But it’s good to try something different!  You might start a new trend amongst your friends – I bet they’ll all be jealous… ?….

Child:  (detects weakness and goes for the kill)  Everyone will laugh at me and I’ll have no friends and I’ll be hungry and (sobs) I – just – want – a – lunch – order (sobs again while peering through hands).

Mother:  (dejectedly) Oh okay I suppose.  But no party pies.

Child:  (Miraculously recovers from lunch panic and beams triumphantly).

Outcome:  Mother sips tea and tries to look at upside – calculating minutes of free time bought by lunch order.  Contemplates drying hair or putting on make up, then looks over at younger child and realises kindergarten does not have canteen.

Mother takes deep breath, channels Zen state, and returns to fridge…


10 totally unrealistic lunchbox ideas to make your blood boil

I did warn you that I was by no means done, on the subject of school lunches.  Specifically, I need to finish my rant about the contents of this cheery-looking little yellow book, which set me off in the first place.

The Lunch Box

It’s not that I feel any real malice toward the authors –  I’m sure they are nice people, and that no-one was actually harmed in the making of this book.  Perhaps they live in an alternate universe, where time can be suspended indefinitely in order to make lunch, where children’s lunches are packed in wicker baskets, and set out at picnics under shady trees?…

Anyway, I’m working through my emotional issues around this book.  And to help me do so, I’ve selected the ten lunch ideas I found the most irritating and preposterous.

You be the judge.

1.  Celery, cream cheese and sultana tree.

Where do I start?  I mean, this is the first page of the book, and we can already see some pretty outrageous examples of food styling gone mad.

snack tree for lunch box

A carrot has been carved into a sun, which is shining down on a celery, cream cheese, peanut butter and sultana tree.  Oh, and I think the flowers have been fashioned from two different cheeses.

For now I’m going to ignore the fact that most schools don’t encourage nut items at school, and just ask the question: How does one assemble and transport such a tree in a lunch box?

When we tried a version of this in my daughter’s lunch box, the result was decidedly less ‘tree in under blazing carrot sun’ and more ‘glumpy smeary celery logs’.  They arrived home in much the same fashion, with a few nibbles around the edge.

2.  Hand sewn fabric sandwich and fruit bags in fresh, zesty colours

At risk of alienating readers, I going to come right out and just say F-A-R-K OFF at this point.

stylish sandwich

Now I don’t sew, but if I did, I still wouldn’t be caught dead making fabric sandwich pockets when I have a cupboard full of, sturdy, unsquishable, WASHABLE containers that are designed for the purpose of transporting sandwiches.  Simply preposterous.

3.  Glass of risoni and grilled vegetables

pasta salad for school lunch

The most pressing issue here, is that the food stylist does not appear to comprehend the simple physics of the harsh school bag environment.  A bright yellow napkin tied up with twine isn’t going to do much for you when you’re trying to clean mouldy fetta out of the darkest corners of a school bag.

I also don’t know of many parents who keep a stock of risoni and grilled vegetables in the fridge, in the off chance that their child may ‘order’ the risoni salad that day.

(Okay, so it looks pretty tasty – but I think that’s partly me, projecting my fantasy that it’s just been delivered to me while I sit alone in a cafe and read the paper).

4.  Pretty infuriating pita wraps

At a stretch, these infuriating wraps may be appropriate for cute Instagram opportunities at race-day picnics.  But let’s be serious for a minute here.  They have no place within spitting distance of a school ground.

pretty annoying pita wraps

I think we all agree that a pita wrap is a pita wrap, regardless of how many hours you may spend cutting pretty paper with serrated scissors and tying them up with matching twine.

But thanks to The Lunch Box for creating this visual, which my children can contrast against the austere (yet infinitely more practical) cling-wrapped version I make.

5.  Home made sushi handrolls

Okay my kids love sushi, and this looks great, but….

Home made sushi handrolls


Come Monday morning, you won’t find me rising an hour or two early to roll my own sushi for the kids lunch boxes (and I don’t know any of my friends who would beg to differ).  This one fits into both the ‘life is too short’ and the ‘don’t be ridiculous’ categories.

6.  ‘Fruitwiches’ (AKA silly ways of using fruit in a sandwich)

brown mush sandwiches

For a change here, I’ll stop picking on the food stylist, and take the author to task on these sure-fire candidates for the ultimate sandwich fail.

Firstly, I give you the pear and avocado open sandwich.  As the layperson will be aware – both pear and avocado have a tendency to turn a delightful shade of brown once they are opened and cut.  They are also very high in moisture content.  So it doesn’t take a masters in Nutrition and Dietetics to predict that by the time lunch rolls around, this creation will have morphed into a very sad, soggy brown object de mush.

Or perhaps your child is more of a ‘strawberries, strawberry jam and goat cheese on a toasted english muffin’ type?  OH PLEASE SPARE ME!!

7.  Devilishly devilled eggs.

Excuse me?  Have I unwittingly boarded a time machine and been transported back in time to a 1970’s cocktail party?

deliciously devilled eggs

I mean, sure this looks quite fetching for an alfresco lunch with a crisp glass of white, but I think we digress.

Next time I find I’ve been forward-thinking enough to have pre-boiled eggs at hand… they will be mashed up with mayonnaise and chucked between two slices of bread.  Quite simply, life is too short to make devilled egg salad for your child’s lunch box.

Okay, now bear with me – I can feel you flagging, but we’re almost there.  My last three candidates are sure to get your nostrils flaring with pure indignation.

8.  Oats with ‘toppings galore’

non-breakfast oats

This is not lunch!  This is quite clearly breakfast.  Why would I want to take a perfectly good breakfast option and try to turn it into a lunch?

A handy little hint states ‘No-one likes cold oats, so be sure to use a well-insulated container’.  

Well I’d like to tell them where to shove their well insulated container, because I stand by my original statement that this is BREAKFAST, and therefore I will feed it to my child first thing in the morning, eliminating the need for the INSULATED CONTAINER.

9.  Swirly layered yoghurt and fruit compotes

On the sweet side

As you will have identified without my help, there are a number of issues here. These include (but are not limited to) the idea that any parent has the time or inclination to create such a dish for a school lunch, and the fact that, quite clearly, THIS IS A DESSERT.  It’s a lovely idea for a brunch party, but I think I’ll stick with my conventional option of yoghurt in squeezie tube, frozen so that it doubles as a cool pack.  Sheesh.

And finally, I bring you the last, but by no means least annoying lunch box idea:

10.  Cheesy steak roll (or if you prefer, hipster child burger)

Mini brioche steak roll

I saved this one for last as it got up my nose the most of all.  It involves making a ‘special sauce’ (which you whip up with 4 different ingredients), and requires both cooking in a pan (of the onion and peppers) and then heating under a grill to melt the provolone cheese. And although it is not implicitly stated, that bun just reeks of the brioche variety.

‘just wrap in foil and slide into an insulated bag to help keep the roll warm’.

Quite simply, this is NOT IN ANY WAY a valid school lunch suggestion – I would be both a fool and a masochist if I thought otherwise.  It is perhaps acceptable for a swanky Saturday night burger at home with a glass of cider.

And that brings me to the end of this rather cross little post.  I hope you’ve been fuming alongside me all the way, and will forgive me for today’s rather shouty demeanour.  You see, us nice dietitian folk can get just as cross as the next person when provoked.

I mean, take another look at the hipster lunch burger.  Tell it doesn’t make you want to stab someone.

Stick This in your Sanctimonious Lunch Box

I have a bone to pick with the people at Scholastic Books – they recently tricked me into ordering one of the most irritating books of all time.

The Lunch BoxIt’s pages are filled with perfectly styled, perky images of food that has clearly never been in sniffing distance of a battered old lunch box.  But I’ll save my ranty-pants exposé for another time, and another post.

Right now, I’ll just want to get on my school lunch soapbox for a bit, and explain why the whole process is such a momentous brain drain (and why I’ve never had the inclination to tie up a pita wrap in coloured paper and string).

You might imagine that after five years of nutrition training, I’d be able to come up with some pretty awesome school lunch ideas without the help of a book.  But being a dietitian hasn’t equipped me with any superpowers in creative lunch box planning, or the patience of a saint.

There are three main issues I have with the whole Lunch Conundrum:

1.  There are just far too many variables involved, and too many points at which the whole process can fall down.

As is clear from the flow chart I’ve created (see Figure 1), the execution of a successful school lunch is dependent on a number of consecutive variables all being met.  These encompass the pre-planning stage, the actual assembly and transit, and the oft-neglected stages of disassembly, sanitizing, and debriefing.

The middle spheres shown in Figure 1 (below) depict the integral role of various containers and temperature regulating devices in the school lunch box.  This paraphernalia must first be procured, and then clearly labelled and stored (in the perpetually chaotic ‘Tuppaware cupboard’).  And as losses are inevitable, stock-take and replenishment must occur on an ongoing basis.

The orange markers draw your attention to some of the danger points in the school lunch cycle, and key stumbling blocks where the whole process can come undone.

School Lunch - Stages of Readiness

2.  Most children I know are as fickle as all f*&%.

I’m sorry for swearing, but the school lunch process brings out the potty mouth in the best of us.

This week they love orange segments, next week they’ll make the ‘why don’t you just make me eat vomit?’ face if you suggest orange.  They beg you to buy salami because their best friend is allowed to have it every day, but within a few days it’s old news, and coming home all greasy and gross in the bottom of the lunch box (or worse still, just loose in the school bag).  Now what are you supposed to do with the large salami stockpile, which you bought in bulk because it was on special?

This is the reason that Stage 4 – the debriefing (see Figure 1) – is such a key point in the cycle.  If you unwittingly skip this step, there’s a high likelihood of ending up with a kitchen stand-off and a rejected lunch box the next morning.

3.  School lunches will never end.

The fact is, that only a number of hours after you’ve engineered and assembled the lunch(es), you need to be locating and washing the containers, and planning for the next day.  This is where I frequently come undone.  I generally feel so relieved that one set of lunches is done and dusted, that I neglect the fact that it all needs to happen again the very next day.  It’s quite frankly exhausting – and one of the reasons that weekends and school holidays are such things of joy.

And I just calculated that I’ve got another 12 years of this ahead of me.

I’ll leave you with this meme I created.  With any luck it will go viral and I’ll be commissioned to write my own smug 101 fast fun and fabulous school lunches book by this time next week 🙂

Death and taxes (and school lunches)

Meme by Marnie (a meme and a flow chart in the one post – how’s that for value?!)