Packing a Healthy Lunch Box

According to research half of children in the UK take a packed lunch to school and this equates to a staggering 840 million packed lunches a year*; we are definitely not alone in this task – whether its deciding what goes in it or cleaning out the mushed remains at the end of the day! 

Negotiating the contents of lunchboxes with children can be tricky to say the least with research revealing they are often less healthy than school dinners** and tend to be low on fruit and veg and high in fat, sugar and salt.*  

As with all conversations around feeding our children a healthy balanced diet, let’s take a breath and look at the bigger picture. We do have a responsibility to provide healthy food and to educate our children as to what this looks like, but we don’t need to achieve nutritional perfection every day. As far as lunch boxes go, balance and variety is key plus involving children when we can in the decisions we’re making is a great idea to make sure that food doesn’t become a battle over control. Achieving variety can sometimes feel like a bit of a headache, so to help with that we have a weeks’ worth of fantastic lunch box ideas that have been tried and tested on my own kids who are strong on their opinions and quick to judge (but I love them all the same!).   

Firstly, let’s have a quick look at what nutrients a lunch box should contain 
Kids need fuel, a little protein (although maybe not as much as you’d think; children aged 4-9 only need 19g per day which is the equivalent of a small chicken breast as it is worked out as approximately 1g per kg of their body weight) and nourishing extras like vitamins, minerals and fibre from fruit and veg. 

They also need two to three portions of dairy or fortified plant-based alternative (e.g. soya or oat products) a day to meet their calcium requirements, for example milky puddings, cheese or yoghurt. 

Carbs provide fuel and if these are fibrous options then even better, for example a wholemeal wrap or pasta. Sometimes it’s useful to think of the carbs as the base, from which lots of different options can be created. You’ll see some examples of this below: 

Bringing it to life! 

  • Wholemeal chicken salad wrap
    I often roast a small chicken on a weekend, even if we haven’t had a traditional roast. It’s a really cost-effective way of eating meat and a chicken filling is healthier than processed meats such as ham as there is less salt and more minerals e.g. zinc and iron. Serve in a wholemeal tortilla rolled up with a little mayo and grated carrot. Any veg grated works well – courgette or beetroot for example add a splash of colour.
  • Fresh fruit
  • Mini custard 

  • Cheese and spinach muffins
    These have always been a hit in our household since my children were small and this is the recipe that works for me. Any veg can be added to them, and now I’m braver I make them with 100% wholemeal flour and actually no one has noticed! Serve with additional protein if desired e.g. tofu pieces, chicken or kidney beans. 
  • Berry selection
    e.g. strawberries and blueberries (not cutting them up too small will preserve vitamin C content) 
  • Low sugar cereal bar 

  • Pasta salad 
    Cooking more pasta the night before makes for easy leftovers the next day. Added to this can be anything you fancy but store cupboard ingredients work well, for example tinned tuna or salmon with chickpeas and cherry tomatoes for a splash of colour. Bind with a little low-fat mayo or lemon juice and olive oil if you have that to hand. Squeezing a citrus fruit into the pasta will boost the vitamin C content and encourage more iron absorption. You could also add a little sweetness with some dried fruit, e.g. a few sultanas.
  • Tinned peaches in natural juice.
    Tinned fruit is a great option to keep it varied and to include fruits out of season or are a lot of effort to chop e.g. pineapple!
  • Pot of yogurt 
  • Dips, pitta and beans 
    Hummus is a popular addition to a lunch box and is great for dipping veggie sticks, for example cucumber, pepper or carrot. Slicing a wholemeal pitta also makes a great dipper or you could use wholewheat bread sticks for a bit more crunch. Hummus doesn’t contain that much protein, so I sometimes add in some beans for a little extra protein, for example sugar snap peas raw or edamame beans which are quick to defrost from the freezer. Try beetroot hummus for a little more colour!
  • A BEAR yoyo  
  • Yoghurt  

  • Sweetcorn pancakes 
    Another staple in our house and great for batch making and freezing. I use them as an evening meal and then for lunch box the next day. Here is the recipe that works for me. Serve with cubes of cheese or cold meat for a source of protein.
  • Fresh fruit 
  • Sugar free jelly 

I've pulled together a handy shopping list for you too, so that's next weeks packed lunches sorted!

So, there we are, a few ideas to keep you going. Remember we’re not competing for a Michelin star; we’re simply showing our children what a balanced lunch looks like. Planning is really helpful to reduce time in the morning when we are completing so many tasks. The rejected contents that comes back may have us shaking our heads in despair but keeping the children involved whilst gently reminding them of the benefits of a healthy lunch should help to make it less fraught. My children frequently roll their eyes at me when I talk ‘work’ but I’m pleased to say it has rubbed off a little on them and most of the time we find a balance that makes us all happy.  
 

*http://eprints.whiterose.ac.uk/79612/2/greenwood16.pdf 
**https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23578700