What to include in my child’s packed lunch? A quick and easy guide for parents

For many parents (myself included!), every weekday morning is a juggling act to get everyone fed, dressed, bags packed and numerous school/nursery drop-offs achieved on time. Here are my ideas for making nutritious and delicious packed lunches for the kids and your morning routine a little easier.

What foods should I include in my child’s packed lunch?

Ideally, you should aim to include food from each of the food groups. So, what does this look like?

  • A portion of starchy carbs, e.g bread, wrap, flatbread, bagel, pitta, pasta, potato, rice, couscous, etc (use wholewheat options where you can as they’re higher in fibre). A packed lunch doesn’t always have to be sandwich-based, a pasta or potato salad can hold up well too.

 

  • At least 1 portion of vegetables & fruit (bite-sized & pre-prepared!). For the 1-4 year age group, a portion is classed as 40g. Or dried fruit is 15g, though should only be offered with a main meal, rather than as a snack due to its high sugar content and potential harm to teeth. Use a crinkle cutter on fruit and veg sticks such as watermelon or cucumber to add an extra point of interest!

 

  • A portion of protein e.g. beans, pulses, eggs, fish, meat or meat-free alternatives. Tinned fish such as mackerel is a cheap and convenient option, just make sure to check and remove any large bones before stirring through couscous or pasta.

 

  • A portion of dairy, such as plain yoghurt, cheese or milk. You could make a quick yoghurt dip tzatziki style with thick plain yoghurt, grated cucumber, chopped mint and lemon juice for dipping cut veggies or bread sticks. Make sure to include a spoon so they can devour any remaining dip!

Use my infographic to help guide you when building your next lunchbox:

My quick guide on what to include in your child’s packed lunch

What shouldn’t I include in my child’s packed lunch?

Check whether your school or nursery has a food policy as this can vary between different settings. Most will likely not allow nuts due to allergies. Chocolate and shop-bought cakes often have traces of nuts, so it’s best to avoid these too, to minimise the risk of spreading allergens. 

You should also avoid any foods which pose a choking hazard and cut foods appropriately, e.g. whole grapes into quarters. Check out the Food Standards Agency for a list of foods which may be potential choking hazards. 

Can I offer the same packed lunch each day?

Try and vary the food offered each day, it’s more exciting for your child & it helps support a varied diet. There’s so much choice in the bread aisle in the supermarket these days; try out seeded bagels, multigrain flatbread or oat-topped bread rolls! 

Using different coloured fruits and vegetables each day is a good place to start. Don’t be afraid to tap into tinned fruit or vegetables (e.g. pear, mango, sweetcorn), opt for fruit in juice (not syrup) and vegetables with no added salt. Keep some spare in the kitchen cupboard, they are handy and convenient when you’re out of fresh produce and still count towards your 5-a-day intake.

Check out these images for some lunch box ideas

Potato tortilla with tomatoes, Cheddar cheese and strawberries (& a sprinkle of coconut).
Couscous with cooked baby courgette, falafel, plain yoghurt and blueberries.
Wholewheat pasta and cucumber, plain yoghurt, salmon and mango.

 

Potato wedges, Quorn chicken pieces, plain yoghurt, banana and chopped lettuce salad.

What drink should I put in my child’s packed lunch?

The best drink for children is water because it hydrates without providing extra calories or doing damage to teeth. Ideally include a reusable water bottle. Or you could add a carton of milk if you know it will be kept chilled until it’s consumed, if facilities exist.

How much food should I pack?

Try to pack some foods you know are familiar and accepted, so as to minimise food waste and take comfort in knowing they will eat something.

Some children can be overwhelmed by large portions of food in front of them, so it can be helpful to place food in multiple containers and that way they can open each in turn as and when they’re ready. 

Be realistic and don’t expect all food to be hoovered up.

Even as adults our hunger and appetite can vary wildly each day and it’s just the same for children. Raise any concerns with staff if you are worried your child isn’t eating much, so you can get more detailed feedback.

What should I pack if my child is a food refuser or fussy eater?!

Whether you have a food refuser or not, it can be helpful to involve your child in choosing and preparing their lunch to make it more appealing and encourage healthy eating habits.

Where possible give them a choice so that they feel they have some input, e.g. do you want carrots or cucumber today?

How can I keep food fresh and safe in a packed lunch?

For younger children make sure to choose a lunch box or bag that can be opened easily, is not too heavy and is safe from spillages, lunch leakages are no fun for anyone!

Make sure drink bottles don’t leak, and everything is labelled with wipeable/washable name tags, e.g. lunch box, cutlery and Tupperware. 

Tupperware should be your best friend when building a packed lunch. Make sure to have a variety of sizes available to house all those snacks!

Make sure kids can get into Tupperware and containers easily, ideally without too much assistance. They’re durable, easy-to-clean and keep food fresh and I love that they can be stacked neatly even in the smallest of lunchboxes! I often decant food straight into them to save on time and mess; think oatcakes, breadsticks, berries and yoghurt.

Ensure to include an ice block to keep food chilled, in case there are no facilities to keep food cool.

Avoid single-use cling film & plastic sandwich bags for environmental reasons. Instead, use reusable containers, wax wrap or these cool sandwich bags.  

I like to put my own personal stamp on my kid’s lunchbox with novelty napkins (handy for sticky hands), a joke or a lunchbox love note! I’ll continue to do this until they tell me to stop!

What can I put in a packed lunch if I don’t have any fresh food in the fridge?

Even if the fridge is bare you can still pull a balanced and decent packed lunch together.

Embrace your store cupboard and keep it well stocked. Ambient food is a handy, economical option.

Use tinned fish (remove any large bones) stirred through cooked pasta and a simple dressing. Tinned fruit (in juice, rather than syrup due to the sugar content) is a nutritious and delicious option, just decant pear slices or pineapple straight into a Tupperware. 

Want more info about how to give children the best nutritious start in life?!

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