Preparing Healthy School Lunches

bento lunch box purple

Preparing healthy school lunches requires thought and planning.  Find some tips and information about nutritional needs in our School Lunches article.

Making school lunches may not be a popular task, but it is an important one. If you get the mix right – both with food choices that will be eaten and choices that are sustaining – then it can certainly help towards a brighter school day.

It is a well known fact that kids who are fuelled well during the day have much better concentration and energy levels. It also helps to ensure that when your darling child gets home he or she is not a little monster, due to hunger and flagging energy levels.

As parents we need to take on the role of teaching good choices – this is especially true if you have a child who is really digging in their toes over lunch box choices. Children like lunch box choices that are quick to eat and not messy.

Preparing Healthy School Lunches

Preparing a healthy school lunch requires some thought.

First you need to ensure that there are suitable choices in the cupboard, and involving your child in decision making about what they are going to eat can be helpful – as long as their preferences are good choices.

Encourage your children to prepare their own packed lunch, with guidance, by using a chart of the food groups that need to be represented in each lunch.

What to put in those lunch boxes …

Just like any other meal the lunch box needs to be well balanced.

Generally there are 5 things that need to go into the lunch box– if you can’t include both the meat and dairy group make sure you choose at least one option from either of these groups.

Breads and Cereal food group

These foods are carbohydrate based and therefore provide a good source of energy. Choices include:

  • Bread (wraps, pita pockets, buns, raisin bread)
  • Crackers
  • Mini muffins or small savoury scones
  • Small serves of pasta salads or rice salads, or rice in the form of sushi.

Fruit and Vegetable food group

Make your own fruit leather

Fruit is another good source of energy and vegetables are great for vitamins. Try to include one fruit and one salad option. Choices include:

  • Fruit (raw or pottles of stewed fruit) – apples, pears, bananas, stonefruit
  • Cocktail tomatoes, carrot or cucumber sticks, mini salads.
  • For the more adventurous, gherkins and olives

Dairy Food group

Dairy foods are a great source of protein which satisfies hunger and helps to repair the body. Dairy based foods are also a great source of calcium. Choices include:

  • Cheese – sticks or sliced or grated in sandwiches or with crackers
  • Yoghurt or yoghurt drinks
  • Milk drinks and dairy food pottles (i.e. chocolate or caramel “yoghurts). Just be careful to watch the sugar levels on these lables.

Meat and Meat Alternative group

This is another great source of protein, and also an important source of dietary iron. Whether the protein comes from this group or the dairy group aim to include a protein based food in the lunch box daily to help ensure your lunch box energises your child. Choices include:

  • Meat – ham, chicken & fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel or sardines)
  • Egg, baked beans or other dried beans – these could all be served either separately, or as part of a sandwich filling, or as part of a salad.

A Drink

The other really important factor to remember is to make sure your child has a drink bottle. This should be filled with water not juice or cordial. Pop it in the freezer half full the night before, then top it up from the tap in the morning, so that it stays cold all day. Alternatively, you could add ice cubes in the morning.

Meeting their energy requirements

Foods that are sustaining, nourishing and filling are the less processed ones.

So if you are filling your child’s lunch box with lots of packaged foods – chippies, roll-ups, muesli bars etc., then your child may not be getting the sustained energy they need. They will also be getting a higher fat and sugar intake through these choices.

These processed foods will not provide important vitamins and minerals, like the healthy choices mentioned above. Set yourself a goal of only one (or try no) pre-packaged or processed snack food in the lunch box.

Sweet treats?

Including a sweeter type option in the lunch box may be suitable as children are generally active – and are growing – so they have higher energy needs than adults, per kilogram of body weight.

However a treat option should be just one choice – and if you are concerned about your child’s weight then you may want to limit this further. Options like a biscuit or other baked item could be considered – but instead of always a high fat choice such as a chocolate type biscuit, consider other plain biscuits like ginger nuts, malt biscuits, wafer biscuits, hundreds and thousand biscuits or even the bread option of raspberry fingers.

When considering a muesli bar, limit the chocolate ones and ones that are covered in yoghurt – look for fruit filled or baked options.

Chippies?

What about the regular packet of chippies that so many children take to school? If these are included every day your child will think it is OK to eat chippies every day– but chippies should not be an every day food.

If you include the 25 gram bag of chips every day in the lunch box, over the week your child will get 40 grams of fat from this alone – and it is likely more chips will be eaten over the weekend. Other lower fat choices such as pretzels, flavoured rice crackers, popcorn (plain) are also good snack choices that most children like.

Food safety

Don’t forget to consider food safety issues too. Over our hot summer months it may be wise to consider getting an insulated lunch box that keeps the food chilled through the use of a frozen mini slicker pad. These are available in most supermarkets. Alternatively, prepare the drink bottle the night before and pop it in the freezer. As it defrosts, it will keep the lunch packed with it nice and cool.

Tips for Sandwiches

Younger children love little club sandwiches, or sandwiches that are rolled up like sushi. Older children love wraps, pita pockets and paninis.

Sushi sandwich rolls 6 ways

Still not sure what to put on that bread?

The options for sandwich fillings are endless!

Grated cheese & pineapple, cheese & vegemite, salad & cheese, ham, cream corn, salami, jam, honey, peanut butter, cream cheese & vegemite, tuna, egg, spaghetti, baked beans, dried apricot and cream cheese, hummus & salad…

If you liked this article, you should also check out Healthy Breakfasts by expert nutritionist Fiona Boyle.

For information on which bag or box would best meet your child’s needs check out Lunch boxes. And for great snack ideas, check out 7 Healthy lunchbox snacks for kids.

Fiona Boyle

Fiona Boyle is a registered dietitian and nutritionist. She runs a private practice and gives nutrition advice to individuals and families to help meet their health needs and personal goals.

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