Does your child take a packed lunch to school? Do you know what makes a healthy lunchbox? Do you include lots of variety? I am often asked questions by parents who want some ideas and inspiration on what to include in their kids lunchboxes. As a mum of 2 school-kids myself, I am also in the same boat, of trying to make interesting and fun packed lunches for my kids. In July, the School Food Plan was published, which highlighted how unhealthy the majority of lunchboxes are. They are often filled with unhealthy items, like crisps and chocolate bars, which are full of ‘empty calories’ and not the high quality nutrition our kids need to thrive and do well in school. To help improve the situation, Nick Clegg very recently announced free school meals will be available for all infants (kids in Year R, 1 and 2) from next September, which is great news. I hope this blog gives you some tips in the meantime. It’s easy to create a healthy and interesting packed lunch with a little forethought and planning – good luck!
What to include in a healthy lunchbox
- A starchy food – e.g. bread, pitta bread, wrap, bagel, pasta, noodles or couscous. Rice cakes, breadsticks and oatcakes are other alternatives. Offer these with low fat cream cheese, meat/fish pastes or hummus. Change the variety each day, so kids don’t get bored
- A dairy product – e.g. yoghurt, fromage frais, cheese sticks/cubes, cottage cheese. You could even include some reduced sugar custard or instant whip in a pot, so they can have fun dipping their fruit
- A serving of protein-rich food – e.g. lean meat (chicken, ham, roast beef fillings to sandwiches), fish, egg, beans, lentils and pulses. You could try including kidney beans or chickpeas into a pasta salad, or why not make hummus (easy to make using a can of chickpeas) for you child to dip in their veggie sticks?
- At least one serving of fruit – this could be fresh fruit, dried fruit, or tinned fruit in natural juice (drained). If your child doesn’t like fresh fruit, why not grate some apple into a pasta salad, or add some tinned/fresh fruit into some custard or whip to make a tasty dessert? Grapes, clementines (peeled and segmented for them) and berries work nicely in packed lunches – invest in some little pots to portion them up and avoid mess. Berries and clementines are also a fab source of vitamin C
- At least one serving of vegetable or salad item – this could be salad or vegetables in a sandwich, wrap or bagel, a side salad to accompany the lunch, an addition to a pasta salad, or some pre-prepared carrot, pepper, celery, spring onion and cucumber sticks. Including healthy dips like hummus or low fat cream cheese is a nice, fun idea
- A drink – it’s best to stick to water, milk or pure unsweetened fruit juice (from concentrate). Check the label on your fruit juice cartons to ensure they contain 100% fruit from concentrate, and no added sugar and water
What to avoid
- Crisps – even baked crisps are high in fat. Beware of advertising and marketing ploys with taglines such as ’30% less fat’ – crisps are high in fat to start with, so even 30% less will still be high
- Sweets and chocolate – these are high in fat and/or sugar, and will often leave kids climbing the walls in their classrooms after lunch
- Chocolate biscuits/bars, e.g. kit kats, penguins – high in fat and sugar, and do not contain vitamins and nutrients that kids need, like iron and vitamin C
- Cereal bars – clever use of advertising and packaging make us think these are a healthy alternative to chocolate bars and biscuits. Unfortunately these usually contain the same amount of sugar as chocolate biscuits, if not more. Check the label of your current brand of cereal bar and see for yourself – a product containing more than 22.5g of sugar per 100g of product (sugar is listed under carbohydrates) is classed as high in sugar. For children, aim for products with a sugar content of less than 15g per 100g
- Cakes – these are also high in fat and sugar, and often contain ‘empty calories’. Why not include some healthy home baking once a week instead? Use low-fat spread and reduce the amount of sugar you use. You could sweeten home-made cakes, cookies and flapjacks with fruit, e.g. raisins or dried apricots instead
- Fizzy drinks – these are acidic and contain lots of sugar. Even the diet varieties contain acids which are harmful to developing teeth
- Other sugary drinks, e.g. Fruit Shoot, Capri Sun, Ribena – these are often high in sugar and other chemicals best avoided in this age group
- Nuts – most schools have a no nut policy, so it’s best to avoid these, as there could be nut allergy sufferers present
- Rice – rice, e.g. rice salad should be avoided due to the potential risk of food poisoning from rice
What if my child has a big appetite?
If your child has a big appetite, provide a larger serving of starchy food (e.g. extra bread or pasta), and extra fruits and vegetables, instead of providing foods high in fat and/or sugar, like chocolate bars, cakes or cereal bars.
Healthy alternatives to sandwiches – try these tasty alternatives to the traditional sandwich:
- Tuna, cucumber and lettuce wrap
- Wholemeal wrap filled with leftover bolognese sauce or curry, and salad
- Wholemeal pitta filled with meat, tinned fish or cheese and salad
- Wholegrain bagel filled with salmon, cream cheese and cucumber
- Pasta salad (pasta, low fat mayo, cooked chicken or tinned tuna, and your choice of veggies, e.g. peppers, sweetcorn, mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, cucumber, onion, olives and grated carrot)
- A slice of cold pizza
- Couscous (cooked with low salt stock/bouillon), with additions such as spring onions, cucumber, mushrooms, sweetcorn, pepper, cucumber, pesto, feta cheese, sunflower/pumpkin seeds and toasted pine nuts
- A serving (20-25g) of dry breakfast cereal – choose varieties containing less than 15g of sugar per 100g of product, e.g. cornflakes, rice crispies and some brands of shreddies. Adding seeds, e.g. linseeds, sunflower seeds or pumpkin seeds to cereal will increase the fibre and protein content and also provide some essential omega-3 fatty acids
Changes to make for the under 5s
If you have preschool children who take a packed lunch with them, the same principles apply. Don’t be afraid to include some wholegrains into their diets. Although under 5s shouldn’t have wholegrains at every meal (they still have growing stomachs and too many wholegrains could fill them up meaning they don’t get all their essential nutrients), but including them with lunch is a good time. Take care with the drinks you include for under 5s. Milk and water are the only recommended drinks for under 5s. This is to protect their dental health, and to stop them developing a sweet tooth. Diluted pure fruit juice (check the label to ensure it says ’100% fruit concentrate’ or similar) is ok to include at mealtimes. It should be diluted as 1 part juice, 10 parts water. Water is the best option to include in lunchboxes. Diluted fruit juice could be included if made up in a bottle in advance.