Children spend a large part of their waking hours at school, and a nutritious lunchbox fuels their bodies and brains during the school day.
What your children need during a school day is highly variable. As a parent you’ll have a pretty good idea of how active they are, but even across each week they might have days where they eat more at school than the next day. If your children are bringing home uneaten food, they may have been ‘too busy’ to eat it, not been as hungry, or just not wanted to eat a particular food (it may have gone soggy or limp, looked yuck, smelled yuck, packet too hard to open…etc).
Lunchbox contents will likely change as your children grow. What they ate at primary school may no longer be ‘cool’ at high school, they may need 3x as much food as they undergo growth spurts, or they may decide they just can’t stand sandwiches anymore. Be prepared to adapt!
Importantly - let your kids pack their own lunchboxes! Kids are perfectly capable of doing this from a very early age (younger children may need supervision or help with cutting, peeling, etc). Children are more likely to eat food they have been involved in prepping themselves (meaning less waste). The key to this is having a wide variety of nutritious options easily available and ready to go. If your fridge has vegetables chopped, eggs boiled, leftovers portioned out and all at eye level, kids can pack these quickly. If your pantry contains lots of healthy options, there should be no problem letting your kids choose their own lunchbox contents.
What makes a good lunchbox?
Fruit provides vitamins, minerals, dietary fibre and phytonutrients, and kids should be eating 1-2 serves per day. Most kids don’t have any trouble eating fruit, and it is one of the easiest lunchbox items to pack! Choose fresh fruit in season for peak nutrition and flavour, and these will be gentler on the budget too.
* Fruits such as mandarins, berries and grapes are easy and quick for kids to eat with minimal mess and waste. Pack in a separate container to avoid the dreaded ‘squashed fruit’ in the lunchbox.
* Apples and oranges are great sources of fibre, but may take longer to eat unless they are precut.
* Bananas are a great little package of nutrients and almost universally liked by kids, but often don’t survive the trip
to school unless they are packaged well (we use ‘banana saver’ containers, ours have lasted years).
* Kiwifruit can be cut in half and sent with a spoon to scoop out the goodness, they are a great source of Vitamin C and dietary fibre.
* Stone fruits, mango, papaya, pineapple, mango and watermelon are great when in season, although these may need to be cut and stored carefully to avoid spoiling other lunchbox foods.
* Dried apricots, sultanas, dates and prunes can provide variety, but aren’t recommended for regular lunchbox inclusion due to their high concentration of natural sugars which can lead to tooth decay and gastrointestinal upset. Kids often want to eat handfuls and find it hard to practice portion control (just 2 small dried apricots are the equivalent of one serve of fruit, yet don’t fill kids up the way 2 whole apricots would!)
Image source: QLD Government-Growing Good Habits
Australian children (and adults) don’t eat enough vegetables. Why are vegies important? They really are the backbone of a nutritious diet, and provide a whole range of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fibre. They help protect us from heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type 2 diabetes and some cancers, so encouraging vegetable consumption from a young age sets up lifelong healthy habits. School aged children should be aiming for 5 serves of vegetables a day, and most children would struggle with that amount in one evening meal – the lunchbox is the perfect place to get in one or two serves.
As a parent, be mindful of your language around vegetables. Try describing them as ‘tasty beans’, ‘sweet corn’ or ‘crunchy carrots’ rather than pushing the ‘healthy’ message too much. Normalise vegetables as part of the school lunchbox (and household eating habits!) so that kids don’t think it’s a big deal to eat them. And don’t assume that because your child turns their nose up at cooked broccoli at dinnertime, they won’t eat it raw (try cutting it into tiny florets!).
* Cherry tomatoes, baby cucumbers (sometimes marketed as Qukes), beans and snow peas are perfect as is, no preparation needed!
* A small cob of corn is great for munching on cold, and easy to keep some aside from dinner leftovers.
* Carrot sticks, celery sticks and capsicum strips are delicious, especially when served with a little dipping pot of hummus or tzatziki.
* Edamame is on the sweet side and fun to eat straight from the pod. You can buy these in the freezer section of the supermarket (near the peas), pack from frozen and they defrost in the lunchbox within a few hours. Kids can pop them straight into their mouth – practice first at home if you’re worried they won’t eat them.
* Prepare a mixed salad container, or add vegies to a pasta salad.
* Zucchini slice, corn fritters and pumpkin scrolls are also a great way to incorporate vegies into lunchboxes – let me know if you’d like some recipes.
3. Milk, Yoghurt & Cheese
Dairy has gotten a bit of a bad rap in the past few years, with many people switching to plant-based milks and non-dairy products for various reasons. Dairy foods such as milk, yoghurt and cheese are still the best sources of calcium for school aged children. During childhood and adolescence, children need up to 1300mg of calcium daily for normal development, as well as building strong bones and teeth. Whilst many other foods do contain calcium, the human body absorbs the calcium from dairy foods more efficiently.
Supermarkets showcase a whole section of highly processed dairy ‘snack’ foods aimed at kids; these would not be my choice for daily consumption due to added sugars, thickeners, flavours etc. There are healthy, affordable options that are perfect for lunchboxes; aim for products that contain at least 200mg of calcium per serving and the shortest ingredients list possible! If you’re choosing dairy-free plant based products, look for calcium-fortified versions and beware of high sugar content.
Dairy products also require safe storage at school. Dairy products are high risk for the growth of food-poisoning bacteria at temperatures over 5 °C.
* Use an insulated lunch bag with a freezer brick or small frozen water bottle, and keep the dairy product next to it.
* If preparing lunch boxes ahead of time, store the lunchbox in the fridge.
* A small container of plain milk is fine for school, however many kids already have milk on breakfast cereal before school - different dairy products in the lunchbox give variety.
* Yoghurt is a perfect lunchbox option when stored correctly – you could even freeze overnight and let kids eat it as a frozen yoghurt. Choose natural/plain or vanilla varieties and add fresh fruit yourself to keep added sugars to a minimum. Buying large tubs and portioning out into smaller, leak-proof containers will result in less packaging waste and be cheaper, but small tubs are also very convenient (The yoghurt industry in Australia is huge, there are so many varieties available and reading labels can be an absolute minefield - it deserves a separate post!).
* Cheese and crackers are a great combo, but can become expensive if buying pre-packaged versions. Highly processed cheese wedges, sticks and stringers often contain a long list of ingredients, and are not the best everyday option. Chopping your own cheese cubes from a larger block can be healthier and more economical.
* Cream cheese, cottage cheese or ricotta – serve in a container with vegie sticks, apple slices or crackers.
* Tzatziki – a homemade version using natural yoghurt pairs perfectly with savoury lunchbox elements.
4. Meat & meat alternatives
Ham & cheese sandwiches are a staple in many Australian lunchboxes, but there are so many more protein sources that make great lunchbox options. School aged children require good sources of protein daily for optimal growth and muscle development.
Most people recognise high protein foods such as lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and tofu, but legumes and nuts & seeds are also good sources of protein and provide variety. Protein-rich foods contain amino acids which are the building blocks of every cell in the body, as well as useful vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. Iron and omega-3 fatty acids from red meat and oily fish are particularly important for your child’s brain development and learning. Requirements vary with age and are highly variable, so aim for at least one good quality protein food in the lunchbox daily.
As with dairy products, protein foods require proper storage – use a freezer brick in an insulated lunchbox.
* Hard boiled eggs, or an egg sandwich
* Lean deli meats
* Small tub of baked beans
* Tin of tuna or salmon in springwater, served with crackers or pita bread
* Salad with leftover beef, chicken tofu or chickpeas
* Dry roasted chickpeas
* Unsalted nuts and seeds (Check your school’s policy regarding the use of nuts and products containing nuts).
* Hummus or bean dip with vegie sticks
* Chicken drumstick
* Vegetable Frittata or mini quiche
* Homemade meatballs or rissoles
* In winter, a small thermos flask of leftovers such as spaghetti bolognaise, tuna mornay, chicken stir-fry or lentil dhal would be a warm and satisfying lunch.
* As with dairy products, protein foods require proper storage – use a freezer brick in an insulated lunchbox
5. Grain & cereal foods
Grain and cereal foods like sandwiches, rolls, pasta, and rice make great lunch options that keep your child full, and they also have the potential to be super nutritious. Grain based foods are not only a good source of energy, but they provide a number of important vitamins and minerals such as B-group vitamins, iron, zinc, magnesium and iodine. They are also a source of fibre, which helps keep kids regular and promotes good gut bacteria.
Most of those goodies are actually found in the outer layer of grains and are lost in refining processes, which is why it’s really important to choose unrefined grain products such as whole meal and whole grain varieties.
Think outside the box for sandwich making – try sourdough, rye, soy & linseed, or corn bread, and look for high-fibre varieties.
*Grainy or wholemeal rolls, wraps or pita bread make a nice change from sandwiches, fill with vegies, protein and dairy (check back on previous posts for ideas!)
* Pasta, rice or quinoa salad
* A warm noodle dish in a thermos flask
* Multigrain corn thins with cottage cheese, turkey and cranberry
* Savoury wholemeal muffins with ham, cheese & corn
* Homemade pizza scrolls (there are some great recipes using pumpkin dough!), or pizzas made on wholemeal English Muffins
* Sushi or onigiri using brown rice, chicken or tuna, and vegetables
* Pasta Bake with chicken and peas
* Wholemeal pikelets, crispbreads and oat slices make great lunchbox snacks!
Find my free handy resource with tips here.
Looking more more resources? Try these:
I really like this handy pdf which helps you ‘pick & mix’ all the elements for a healthy lunchbox, it’s a good visual to print and have on the fridge as a reminder, and includes a great list for ideas too.
The Cancer Council has a fun interactive ‘lunchbox builder’ website tool which kids might enjoy playing with for ideas, and the website has recipes.