Karen Wright

Back to school and the thought of what to pack into your child’s lunchbox is looming! Most parents struggle for inspiration on what to pack into their child’s lunchbox each morning. Thinking of options that are nutritious varied, practical and that your child will eat, can be quite a challenge. The trick is to find combinations that deliver just the right nutrition to re-fuel after the morning and get your child through several hours of work and play but are still appealing if they have sat in a lunchbox for several hours.

A packed lunch can make an important contribution to your child’s daily nutritional intake. It should provide a third of your child’s energy needs for the day, as well as approximately one third of the daily protein, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins and minerals. The key to a healthy packed lunch is getting the right balance and choosing a wide variety of foods, which will provide all the nutrients children need to grow, be healthy, promote well-being and keep your child active and alert for the rest of the day.

A recent survey conducted in the UK by the Food Standards Agency found that many children taking a packed lunch to school are missing out on vital vitamins and minerals contained within fresh foods. 92% of lunches surveyed contained food too high in fat, sugar and salt and low in starchy carbohydrates, iron, zinc, folate and vitamin A.

A healthy packed lunch should include:
Use this as a guide to preparing a balanced lunch for your child:

  • A good portion of starchy food for long lasting energy e.g. wholegrain roll, tortilla wrap, chapatti, pitta pocket, bagel, baguette, ciabatta, sushi, noodles, pasta or rice salad;
  • A portion of lean meat, fish or alternative, e.g. chicken, ham, beef, tuna, salmon, egg, beans or hummus for a healthy body to grow;
  • Plenty of fruit and vegetables for vitamins and minerals, e.g. an apple, satsuma, handful of cherry tomatoes or carrot sticks, small tub of fruit salad or small box of raisins; ideally one serve of fruit and one of vegetables
  • A portion of semi-skimmed milk or other dairy food e.g. reduced fat cheese, yogurt or fromage frais for strong bones and teeth;
  • A drink to think and keep the body hydrated e.g. fruit juice, semi-skimmed milk, yogurt drink or a bottle of water approximately 200-300ml.

This checklist is adapted from the Department of Health’s Food in Schools Toolkit.

Some useful tips:

Here are some tips to help you get started:

  • Try to avoid basic sandwiches everyday and keep treats such as potato crisps and cakes and biscuits to a minimum. Try: pizza slices, pasta, potato or rice salad in small tubs, soup in a flask, dips with vegetable sticks, chicken drumsticks;
  • when making sandwiches try different breads or other starchy foods for variety e.g. pitta pocket, tortilla wrap, crispbread, , wraps, savoury muffins, scones. Introduce different varieties of sliced bread. If you are having trouble getting acceptance of wholegrains, use a more finely milled wholemeal bread (e.g.wholemeal) that is not so ‘bitty’ but still includes the benefits of a whole grain bread and use one slice white and one slice wholemeal or wholegrain;
  • take a tempting dip, such as hummus, cottage cheese or plain yoghurt with some red or green pesto stirred in for extra interest; or you could chop an apple into a mashed can of tuna. Have some sticks of celery, carrots or pepper, or some cauliflower and broccoli with the dips;
  • include raw vegetables such as carrot or celery sticks, baby carrots or cold, baked potatoes, leftover cold roasted vegetables or cold cooked corn cobs.
  • include grapes, easy peel mandarins, kiwifruit that has been cut in half almost all the way through then wrapped in foil (remember the spoon!), bananas, unpeeled but sliced through the stalk end to allow small hands to peel it easily, small pears or apples that can be eaten whole, or individual pots of fruit in juice.
  • Use spread sparingly and go for reduced fat spread or reduced calorie mayonnaise;
  • Include brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, e.g. cherry tomatoes, sticks of pepper, carrot or cucumber, small oranges, grapes or fruit salad;
  • Add salad to sandwiches and chopped vegetables to salads;
  • Try a variety of different drinks e.g. carton of unsweetened fruit juice, bottle of water, carton of semi-skimmed milk, yogurt, smoothie, or flavoured milk;
  • If your child likes cereal bars, opt for those made with oats and dried fruits. Avoid bars that list hydrogenated fats in the ingredients or those that are high in sugar (look for bars containing 5g or less of added sugar per 100g). Beware of those containing several types of sugar e.g. glucose syrup, invert sugar, fructose or sucrose;
  • Fruit bars are highly processed and contain high levels of concentrated sugars and stick easily to teeth. Limit how often they are provided:
  • Instead of potato crisps and other bagged snacks, try seeds, plain popcorn, breadsticks and dried fruit;
  • Having a healthy lunch does not mean giving up all the foods children enjoy. Foods such as a slice of malt loaf or banana bread, a fruit scone, a small packet of crisps or a chocolate biscuit can be included from time to time for variety and appeal

Try some of these sandwich fillings:

  • Cheddar cheese with apple slices
  • Cooked chicken or turkey, mustard, tomatoes, and lettuce
  • Cottage cheese and dried apricots
  • Tuna, cucumber, green pepper, sweetcorn and tomato
  • Mozzarella with grilled peppers
  • Brie and cranberry sauce or jam
  • Hard boiled egg mixed with mayonnaise and a little chopped cucumber
  • Avocado and chicken
  • Hummus and grated carrot
  • Ham and tomato
  • Salmon and cucumber
  • Soft cheese with lettuce and a little tuna
  • Chopped chicken and tomato

Healthy Extras

This helps to make a varied lunch. Try to provide healthy items most of the time. The occasional treat is fine!

  • Small packet of dried fruit
  • Scone
  • Fruit cake
  • Cereal bar
  • Rice cakes
  • Plain popcorn
  • Fruit Muffins

If your child occasionally has sugary food, encourage him to follow with a piece of cheese, this will help to counteract the effects of the sugar on the teeth.

Involve your child

Children who help choose the food for their packed lunch and are involved in the preparation, are more likely to enjoy eating it. Get them to help with washing, peeling and choosing fruit and vegetables. Baking together can be a huge amount of fun, and a great bonding time. Freezing items you made together at the weekend and adding one to the lunchbox each day is also a great way to keep the lunchbox cool. The item should be thawed and ready to eat by lunchtime.

Tips to keep food chilled:

It is important to consider food safety when preparing and storing a packed lunch in order to prevent food poisoning. It is very often difficult for schools to provide refrigeration for packed lunches and harmful bacteria can multiply when food is stored at room temperature.

Use an insulated lunch box and chill lunch in the fridge the night before packing. Always use a frozen ice block or gel-pack to keep food chilled or freeze a carton of juice the night before which can be used as a freezer pack.

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