Carefully preparing and packing a nutritionally balanced lunch box can feel like a wonderfully nurturing thing to do for your children at the start of term, but soon it can become a bit of a chore over time. For some parents it may be a total necessity to create a packed lunch every day if you have a child with allergies or is a highly selective eater. Some schools still do not have the facilities to provide a hot lunch, and many secondary schools have very limited offerings at lunch time. In these scenarios, sending them in with enough food to keep them going is vitally important.
However it is fairly time consuming and difficult to create a lunch every single day; especially one that provides enough nutrients to fill your kids up and keep them focused and happy throughout the afternoon. Not many parents find it easy to provide lunch box basics, and if you hate making lunch boxes or do not know what to put in them, you are not the only one who is struggling.
This has been born out in research, and one study found that only 1.1% of the children’s lunchboxes met all of the basic nutrition standards that school caterers are required to provide with the lunches provided by the school. And only 5.1% of children’s packed lunches met the necessary healthy lunch box standards set by the UK authorities. These healthy standards include a lunch that contains a sandwich with a protein filling (or an alternative starchy and protein food like a pasta bolognaise), vegetables, fruit and a dairy product.
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Is school food any better?
The quality of school lunches overall has waxed and waned over the years, and in general a school lunch does usually provide better nutrition than a packed lunch, unless a parent or carer makes a huge effort with their lunch box offerings.
There were high hopes for school food when Jamie Oliver highlighted the prevalence of the Turkey Twizzler and other school food woes. Things did improve for the better after that with more nutritious food offerings. However, since the lockdowns, many schools have had to cut back on their school food budget and ultra-processed foods (UPF) have started to creep in even more than before!
UPF is now lurking in some of the basics that make up much of school food today. Cheese for instance is a prime example. Cheese contains four ingredients, right? That is milk, salt, a starter and rennet? Well, you would have thought so anyway, but this is not always the case with school cheese.
These are the ingredients in the cheese from a “grated pizza mix” from one of the major school food catering providers. This cheese is also used in baked potatoes and pasta bakes, so could in theory be eaten at least 3-4 times per week by a child:
Mozzarella, water, white cheese, palm oil, milk proteins, modified starch, salt, potato starch, stabilisers (carrageenan and potassium chloride), emulsifier (trisodium citrate), acidity regulator (citric acid), preservative (potassium sorbate), colour (beta-carotene), anticaking agent (cellulose)
The average UPF intake is high in both primary (72.6% total lunch Kcal) and secondary schoolchildren (77.8% total lunch Kcal). And the higher UPF intake is amongst the kids eating packed lunches, as well as secondary school children and those children in lower income households.
Packed lunches CAN be nutritious
Packed lunches can feel like a nuisance to organise and can be one chore too many to face first thing in the morning. It can become even more disheartening when their lunch box comes back half eaten or even totally untouched. Even more so, when your kids are prone to “hangry” meltdowns after school or they are raiding the fridge all evening, because they haven’t had enough to eat at lunch time.
So this where it is good to have a conversation with your child and work out a plan that means they are getting the nutrition they need and also food that they will actually eat. This might involve them so they take on the important role of assembling their own lunch box.
If you don’t have an adventurous eater, a lunchbox isn’t always a time to try a new food as they may just chuck it away. You may have more success if you try something new after school when they are really hungry, or at the weekends instead and if you get the thumbs up then you can roll it out to the lunch box.
Top tips to get you started
Here are some tips to make the whole lunchbox routine a little easier and more nutritious:
- Prepare as much as you can the evening before. Mornings are inevitably busy, so it’s best to avoid trying to add ‘packed lunch making’ into this time too. You may find it works to make packed lunches whilst you are sorting out supper. Somehow it doesn’t feel like such a chore this way. Then store in the fridge until the morning.
- Invest in some tough, reliable containers. Good containers protect food from being squished and also mean you can keep items separated – so a handful of grapes don’t get covered in grated cheese, for example! Steer clear of plastic containers where possible, which can leach BPA and other nasties into the food. We use these stainless steel lunchboxes.
- Always include at least one source of protein. Protein is vital for growing children and there is evidence that it may benefit mental and academic performance at school. It also fills them up and stops them feeling so hungry. Think nitrate-free ham, leftover sausages, chicken pieces, cheese or cream cheese, natural yoghurt, tinned fish or fish pâté, eggs, hummus and seeds (N.B: most schools are nut-free, so don’t pack any nuts).
- Kids love a bit of DIY. Avoid the dreaded soggy sandwiches with a little bit of self-assembly. Crudites can be dipped into a pot of a colourful dip or dhal, or slices of pitta bread smeared with pâté. Wraps are often a winner. Bite-sized finger food also works well, try meatballs, falafel or go old-school with a boiled egg. Poke bowls are often a winner with older kids and students.
- Try to avoid prepackaged snacks which are marketed for packed lunches. These may seem like a handy short cut, but they can be ultra-processed, which is bad news for long term health outcomes, as well as short term blood sugar highs and lows. These foods include most individual yoghurts, fruit bars, biscuits, chocolate and crisps. However there are some brands who have made the effort to reduce sugar and contain a few simple ingredients. There are yoghurts only sweetened with fruit or honey and with no modified starches. So not every brand of packaged foods is a “no-no”.
- They will probably expect something sweet, so make sure it is something super nutritious. Bulk bake a tray of apple muffins, my special brownies, or flapjacks and freeze them. They will defrost in the lunch box during the morning and keep the rest of the food fresh. This way you can also rotate the choice and pop a different option in every day. For children who don’t have a sweet tooth you could include a savoury muffin.
- Pick and mix fruit. If you find that your child can’t manage to eat a whole piece of fruit such as an apple, banana or pear, then include a handful of fruit they enjoy such as grapes, strawberries, blueberries, or a few orange slices. Dried fruit is a good option too and is delicious mixed with seeds or dark chocolate chips. Squeeze a little lemon juice onto apple or pear slices to stop them going brown.
- Leftovers are your friend. I often cook too much food (such as pasta, rice or chicken) for our supper knowing that I can use it the next day; it can easily turn it into a tasty lunch box salad ready for the next day. If your school allows hot packed lunches, you can send your child to school with a portion of whatever deliciousness you had the night before – a pasta bake, casserole or soup for example. You just have to heat it up in the morning and decant it into an insulated food flask, so it stays nice and warm until lunchtime.
- Don’t forget a drink. Hydration is really important for focus and concentration, so ensure that they take something that they will actually drink to school. A fun water bottle helps! Avoid all squashes and fruit drinks as they are usually full of sugar or artificial sugars which are no better, but if your child is not a fan of plain water try adding a slice of apple, a squeeze of lemon or some berries, mint or cucumber to the water. Let them choose and fill their own!
Packed lunches needn’t be a battle zone. Ask your child what they’d like to eat, and work around that so you find a middle ground of food you want them to eat and include their preference. It is a good idea to keep things varied, not least because you don’t want to eat the same lunch every day and probably neither will your child.
I hope these tips give you a bit more va-va-voom and confidence to your packed lunch making – this in turn will make everyone happier, and your kids will be better nourished!
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- A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016
- Acceptability, Helpfulness, and Utility of the Healthy Lunch Box Booklet (HLBB) for Parents and School-Age Children
- The ultra-processed food content of school meals and packed lunches in the UK, 2008-17: a pooled cross-sectional study
- The Ultra-Processed Food Content of School Meals and Packed Lunches in the United Kingdom