Tips for Back to School lunchboxes

Posted 19 August 2015

Paediatric Dietitian, Ana-Kristina Skrapac

As the summer holidays begin to reel in, and the new school term approaches; parents face the recurring challenge, what-to-pack-for-lunch. Most parents will agree that it often feels like a recurring nightmare: the battle for new food ideas, the worry of lunchboxes returning home untouched, balancing the foods you know your child will eat with those you know they need. A constant to and fro, that seems endless.
Here are some tips for a well balanced lunchbox, helping to ease the stress and keep it fun:

    1. Getting the balance right

Children are constantly growing and developing, their needs changing with age, however the essential building blocks remain the same. Using the Eatwell Plate* as a guide we can see that about a third of energy needs should come from carbohydrate foods (starches), these foods are important not only for growth but also for keeping concentration and energy levels constant over the day. Choose breads, pitas, bagels, pasta, potato, and grains such as couscous or quinoa as a base for the lunchbox main course. Combine this starchy base with a protein food, such as meat, chicken, fish, pulses, nut butters, cheese, all which provide essential building blocks for growing bodies along with important nutrients. Protein foods also help to keep your child feel fuller for longer. Use vegetables and fruits either mixed in with the main course or as tasty sides. Most children will prefer crunchy vegetables and in bite-size pieces. Use squeezed lemon over chopped fruit to keep it from browning. Many lunchboxes have compartments, which helps keep food fresh.

    1. How much is enough?

A school lunchbox should roughly provide your child with a 1/3 of their total energy needs of the day. The bulk of this energy (calories) should be based on foods that provide essential nutrients – starches and grains, proteins, and dairy, with fruit and vegetables contributing fibre, vitamins and minerals. A visual guide to portions may be the size of your child’s hand or fist for a portion of fruit or vegetables

    1. What about treats?

A lunchbox can work as visual tool helping your child learn about foods. Both familiar favorites and new foods may make up a tasty and nutritious meal. However, it’s not only about eating for nutrition, school lunchboxes can be a way of teaching your child how to eat in a balanced way, eating the ‘every day’ foods alongside the ‘sometimes’ foods or treats. You can control the portion size or frequency of these ‘sometimes’ foods by agreeing reasonable limits with your child – ie not every day or with every meal. Making a modified version of a favorite treat food at home with your child can also be a helpful way to engage your child with learning about what is ‘normal eating’, and how ‘sometimes’ foods can be consumed as part of a healthy diet. For instance, when baking biscuits, you can modify the portion size to reduce calories, or try making your own popcorn using different flavouring (herbs, spices etc) as an alternative to crisps.

    1. Don’t forget hydration!

Drinking bottles or water flasks are a vital addition to every lunchbox. It is well known that dehydration affects children’s concentration and school performance, so ensure your child has an appropriate bottle or flask for school. Children often complain that water is too bland and they often prefer to have sweetened drinks. Try part-freezing the water bottle overnight, cold water is more positively accepted. An alternative to juice is flavour-infused water, which you can easy prepare at home by muddling vegetables, fruits or herbs with water – such as cucumber and mint infused water.

    1. Engage your child in the process

Encourage your child to explore new lunchbox ideas with your guidance – children are much more likely to try a new food when they are part of the decision process, or preparation of the food. Begin with exploring new foods at home at the weekend, either trying to grow your own vegetables, or baking or cooking something new as a family. Children often need to try a new taste multiple times before it feels familiar, so keep trying the new food at home together before it appears in the lunchbox. Positive role modeling is also predictive in the uptake of new foods – the more children see their parents eating the new food the more likely they will try it.

And finally remember to have fun! Finger-foods, bite-sized parcels, dipping sauces, wrapping sandwiches in parcels with secret messages, using compartments of the lunchbox for surprises, chilling drinks with ice-blocks, all help to make lunch at school a fun experience whilst eating well.


*The Eatwell Plate was updated to the The Eatwell Guide March 2016.