How to Pack a Healthy, Balanced Lunch Box #backtoschool #packedlunches #schoollunchideas #parenting

We all know the importance of a healthy lunch for our kids and creating a balanced lunch box, but how do you know you’re packing the right combination of foods to ensure they’re getting all the nutrients they need?  Children need the right nutrients to help them concentrate, learn more and have lots of energy throughout the day.


Lunch often gets lost in the maelstrom of morning activities, but giving your child a healthy lunch to keep them going all afternoon at school is vital for their health and wellbeing.  But just how can you get the right healthy balance in their lunch box?

Making sure your child eats a healthy and balanced diet is fundamental to their healthy growth and development, and will help foster positive healthy eating habits for life.  But even the healthiest of lunch boxes won't provide any nutritional value if it gets thrown in the bin, so finding tasty options that are good for them is key.

If there are healthy school dinners available at your child's school, great, but otherwise the onus is on you to provide a delicious, tasty lunch they will eat that is also balanced, healthy and nutritious.


Packing healthy lunches for your child's day

Healthy lunches and snacks are important for active children and it is important to offer healthy lunch box choices.  A healthy lunch box full of fresh food gives your child the energy to concentrate, learn and play all day.  Just how much you put in their lunch depends largely on their age and appetite, but also bear in mind the length of their school day.

If they come home soon after lunch they will need less than if they have morning snack and something to take to after school activities or an after school club or childcare as well.

Make lunch healthy, nutritious and environmentally friendly by using fresh food and eliminating unnecessary packaging.  There are plenty of reusable containers available for packing up a variety of foods, so choose a lunchbox with smaller elements inside or build up a bank of reusable containers in handy sizes.

Remember to always check the policies at your child's school as many will be nut-free and others may also exclude eggs.

What to include

Packing a lunch box from home means you can offer your child a range of healthy lunch options from the five food groups:
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Wholegrains: bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, other grains like quinoa or couscous
  • Protein: meat, fish, eggs, beans, pulses, tofu, nut butter, houmous
  • Milk/dairy: cheese, yogurt, milk (or alternatives), tzatziki


Healthy lunch ideas

Here are some healthy lunch ideas for getting the five food groups into your child’s lunch box:
  • A sandwich made with wholegrain bread* and a filling such as salad, cheese, lean meat or falafel
  • Use different breads for extra interest – rye breads, baguettes, seeded rolls, wholemeal wraps, pitta bread pockets, flat bread, wholemeal savoury scones or rice cakes - more ideas here
  • Dips such as hummus, tzatziki, pea or beetroot, along with strips of pitta bread, crackers and vegetable sticks for dipping
  • Potato salad, chickpea salad, quinoa salad, Greek salad, pasta salad, bean salad, couscous salad or tabbouleh
  • Feta and tomato omelette
  • Leftover pizza or rice and pasta dishes that can be eaten cold, e.g. this vegan paella recipe
  • Make up little pizzas on mini pitta breads to serve cold for lunch
  • Soup or casserole heated up in the morning and poured into a small thermos flask with a wholemeal roll
  • Mini cheese and spinach frittatas made in a muffin tray
  • Make extra quesadillas for dinner and slice into triangles for lunch
  • Yoghurt and fruit or muesli, kept cool in an insulated lunch box or frozen overnight

* If your child won’t eat anything but white bread, try a high fibre or 50:50 loaf.  These are more nutritious than standard white bread and will stop your child from getting hungry again too quickly after lunch.


Tasty sandwich ideas

A core item is essential to any lunch box and for many of us that is a sandwich of some description.  But even though sandwiches are a lunch box staple, but they don't have to be just regular bread.  Mix it up with bagels, flat bread, pitta bread, or wraps.  Try some unusual and interesting fillings away from the norm and you might just get your reluctant eater a bit more excited about her sandwich.  You could even combine two to make a club sandwich.

Be a little more adventurous with these sandwich filling ideas:
  • Diced carrot, celery, pepper, sugar snap peas and cucumber
  • Grated carrot, sliced red cabbage, raisins or sultanas and sliced apple
  • Cheese and grated carrot
  • Marmite with tomato or carrot
  • Cheese, tinned pineapple (drain and pat dry with kitchen roll) and lettuce
  • Cheddar and a fruity chutney
  • Houmous and grated carrot with rocket
  • Cheese and sliced pickled cucumber
  • Cottage cheese and chives
  • Cottage cheese or ricotta and dates
  • Reduced fat cream cheese and cucumber
  • Falafel in pitta pockets
  • Houmous, sliced peppers and spinach
  • Grated cheese, pineapple, lettuce and grated carrot
  • Curried egg with rocket
  • Marmite, grated cheese and cucumber
  • Red pesto, reduced fat cream cheese and baby spinach
  • Houmous and roasted vegetables
  • Cheese, watercress and avocado thins
  • Boiled egg with cress, watercress or lettuce
  • Mashed egg with chives, dill or parsley
  • Grated carrot, raisins and sliced almonds with a little vinaigrette dressing
  • Cold omelette or tortilla, tomato and rocket
  • Apple and raisin
  • Mozzarella and pesto with spinach and red pepper
  • Cheddar with grated apple, chopped spring onions, a squeeze of lemon and a little mayonnaise
  • Avocado (with a squeeze of lemon juice to stop it going brown), tomato and coriander
  • Sliced cheese with sliced green olives, cucumber and red pepper

Healthy snack ideas
  • Fresh fruit
  • Stewed fruit in natural juice
  • Dried fruit (occasionally)
  • Muesli
  • Yoghurt
  • Cubes of cheese
  • Fruit bread
  • Rice cakes
  • Smashed bean dip and wholegrain crackers
  • Malt loaf
  • Wholegrain crackers
  • Crudites of pepper, carrot, cucumber, and broccoli or cauliflower florets
  • Raw vegetables like baby corn, cherry tomatoes, mini cucumbers, baby beetroot
  • Muffins or cakes made with vegetables such as this beetroot and raspberry cupcakes recipe
  • Home-made granola
  • A slice of banana bread
  • A handful of seeds, nuts and raisins
  • Savoury muffins made with vegetables or this smokey sweetcorn muffin recipe
  • Plain yogurt swirled with crushed raspberries or strawberries
  • Oatcakes with houmous or peanut butter
  • Rainbow fruit skewers

9 Examples of a healthy, balanced lunchbox
  • A wholegrain sandwich filled with grated carrot, cucumber, lettuce and tomato; bite-sized pieces of watermelon; a boiled egg and a tub of yogurt.
  • Tabbouleh salad, tzatziki dip with vegetable crudites, cherry tomatoes, mango and strawberries, wholegrain crackers and cheese cubes.
  • Vegetable frittata with a salad of cherry tomatoes, cucumber and lettuce, a banana, and cubes of cheddar cheese with wholegrain crackers.
  • Pasta salad, an apple, vegetable sticks with hummus and wholegrain crackers and a tub of reduced fat custard.
  • A wholegrain wrap with grated cheese, tomato, avocado and lettuce, a packet of sultanas and an orange.
  • A wholegrain pitta pocket with curried egg and rocket, a banana, a tub of yogurt and slices of celery, carrot and capsicum with dip.
  • Egg salad, wholewheat bagel, fruit salad, pot of yogurt.
  • Wholegrain roll with butter or margarine, 2 hard boiled eggs, carrot sticks, yogurt and watermelon.
  • Bean-based casserole or soup in a thermos*, whole-grain roll, stick of cheese and dried fruit.
* To keep food hot for as long as possible, fill the flask with boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes while you heat the soup or stew on the stove.  Empty the water out, then add the soup/stew and seal.


But I'm too busy!

I get it!  We're all busy trying to do all the things, adding baking and the like to your already hectic schedule is too much.  But however busy you are there's not need to reach for all the simple 'ready to eat' lunch box options in the supermarket.  Make up your own lunchables with small crackers and cubes of cheese and some trail mix, or go full out on the little bits with these ideas for bento box lunches.

However pressed you are for time, making foods from scratch is always going to be healthier and better for everyone, and it needs to be a priority for your child's health.  To get ahead and not have to make lunches in the midst of the morning rush, you can make sandwiches or homemade snacks such as healthy muffins or pancakes the night before or at the weekend, then freeze them and pop them into the lunch box each day.


Getting kids to eat their lunch

Kids usually want to eat quickly so that they can go and play.  There is usually only a limited amount of time for children to eat at school, so make it easy for them by offering foods that are simple and easy to eat.  Then they can get outside to play.

Make sure that containers seal well but can be opened easily so your child isn't one of the dozen with their hands up waiting for a lunchtime superviser.

Keep food small and easy to handle:
  • Cut bread into thin slices
  • Cut sandwiches into quarters
  • Use less rather than more sandwich filling
  • Keep sandwiches from going soggy by using drier ingredients
  • Go for small fruits such as strawberries, blueberries and apricots
  • Cut larger fruits such as oranges or watermelon into small pieces
  • Keep apples whole or slice them then secure together with a rubber band
  • Drain juices from fruit

Drinks

Ideally your child will be accustomed to drinking mostly water from weaning on, and not expect fruit juice, squash and the like.  Sweet drinks such as fruit juices, juice drinks, cordials, sports drinks, flavoured mineral waters, soft drinks and fizzy drinks are high in sugar and not necessary.

These drinks can increase the risk of tooth decay and other health problems.  They are also very filling and may take the place of healthier foods.  So save them for occasional use, if at all.

A refillable stainless steel water bottle is ideal as it will keep water cool for longer, as well as being better for children's health and the environment.


Changing your child's lunches

Eating healthy food helps children concentrate and learn.  However, healthy eating changes are not always easy to make and your child may be reluctant to change their habits.  Talk to your child about health, their body and healthy eating.  Ask them why they think it's important.

Food advertising, characters on less healthy foods and their friends' food choices do influence children.  But remember that not all children go to school with lunch boxes filled with crisps and chocolate bars, despite what your child may tell you!

Try to set a good example with the food you all eat at home, making changes to your diet will benefit everyone.  With lunch it is important to keep offering healthy lunch box choices in a variety of ways, as children learn to eat what is familiar to them.  Remember that it may take time to change your child’s food preferences to more healthy choices.

Encourage children to help choose and prepare their own lunch, from a selection of healthy options that you supply.  Ask them to make a list of the healthy foods they do enjoy so you can always keep them in at home.

Start by making easy choices like changing a split pot yogurt for a lower sugar fruit yogurt alternative; or a slice of cake for a slice of malt loaf.  Making a new change every few days will help makeover their lunch box in no time.


Foods to avoid

Without being mean, if it isn't there they can't eat it!  If your child has been used to having sticks of processed meat, crisps and chocolate in their lunch every day, reduce it slowly and gradually add to their lunch with the healthier food and snacks listed below.  It may take a while but they will realise how much nicer and better for them these foods are.

Get into the habit of checking food labels and remember, if it lists sugar, fat or salt as one of the first three ingredients, it’s not an option for your child other than very occasionally.  Always avoid foods that are low in nutrition and high in calories.  The main things to avoid are:
  • High fat meats or cheeses
  • Processed meats
  • Ready made snack foods
  • Salty foods such as crisps
  • High fat foods such as chocolate and bought cakes
  • Most muesli or cereal bars
  • Dried fruit bars and rolls or strips - contrary to popular belief they are very high in sugar, low in fibre and stick to the teeth causing tooth decay
  • Dairy desserts (other than low sugar yogurts)
  • Sugary drinks like pop, juice or squash
  • Flavoured milk

10 Things to remember

  • As a parent, it’s our duty to help our kids make healthy choices
  • A child's lunch box can account for up to 1/3 of their daily nutrition intake - make it count
  • Variety is key - keep offering your child healthy lunch box choices in a variety of ways
  • Always include fruit and vegetables in your child’s lunch box
  • Make food from scratch as much as you can
  • Plan lunch boxes at the weekend and cook and prep ahead
  • If it's not there, they can't eat it, so offer better foods at home and in lunch boxes
  • Always check the labels of processed foods you buy
  • Avoid high fat, high salt foods like meat sticks, crisps, soft drinks, flavoured milks etc
  • Avoid foods with character packaging as they are usually high sugar and low in nutritional value

Related posts:

How To Pack School Lunches Your Kids Will Actually Eat
How to Get Creative With Bento Lunches
Simple Tips for Making Packed Lunches Easy
Back to School Lunches: Go Beyond The Sandwich this Year


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