Unfortunately, many children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, oily fish or fibre. School meals are a great alternative to packed lunches and are worth considering as they can save you time and energy! Government standards on providing healthy food at lunchtime cover most schools in the UK, but if you’d like to prepare a packed lunch this article will show you how to make them nutritious. As an added bonus eating well during school time can help children to develop healthy eating habits.
What makes a lunch healthy?
A healthy lunch follows the principles of The Eatwell Guide, which is the UK’s healthy eating model. The Eatwell Guide shows the different food groups and how much of what we eat should come from each group. It’s also a good idea to see if your child’s school has a packed lunch policy as some foods may be prohibited.
There are 5 key points to remember:
Base the lunch on a starchy food: starchy foods include bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and other grains. Choose wholegrains or leave the skins on potatoes for more fibre when you can. If your child doesn’t like wholegrain bread or pasta, you could try varieties with 50% wholemeal, or pasta with added oat fibre.
Include plenty of fruit and vegetables: try to add at least one or two portions of fruit and vegetables to each lunchbox. One portion is about the amount your child can fit in the palm of their hand which is roughly one medium sized fruit such as an apple or 5cm of cucumber. Try to include a variety of different fruits and vegetables during the week. You could add salad vegetables in sandwiches, include carrot, pepper or celery sticks and different types of fruit. You could include a little box or bag of dried fruit or make up little bags at home.
Include a source of protein: such as beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins. Many children do not eat any fish and it’s a good idea to include fish if you can. You could try canned tuna in a sandwich or wrap, or mix canned salmon with mixed vegetables in pasta salad. Other ideas include boiled eggs, mixed beans with couscous or hummus and salad in a wholemeal pitta.
Include dairy or alternatives: if you haven’t already included a dairy food, add a yogurt or some cheese. Try to choose versions that are lower in fat and sugar when you can and if using dairy alternatives go for unsweetened varieties that are fortified with calcium.
Add a drink: healthier drinks include water, semi-skimmed milk and skimmed milk. Fruit juice and smoothies contain vitamins and minerals and are also a good choice but children should have no more than 150ml a day as they are high in sugar. You can always dilute fruit juices and smoothies with water to make them go further. Try to avoid drinks that contain added sugars including fizzy drinks, squashes, flavoured water and juice drinks.
Can I include snacks?
Healthy snacks can be a good source of energy, nutrients and fibre! If you’re including packaged snacks, Change4Life recommend choosing those containing 100 calories or less and lower in sugar and giving your child no more than two per day in total. You can check the number of calories by looking at the nutrition information on the front or back of packs. If choosing snacks that show traffic light labels, go for those with mostly greens and avoid those with reds. You can download the free Change4Life Food Scanner app on your phone and use it in the supermarket for packs that don’t have a traffic light label. Here are some healthier snack ideas but remember to always check the label: fruit (avoid giving dried fruit between meals though as this can promote tooth decay), vegetable sticks such as carrot, pepper, cucumber or sugar snap peas, plain popcorn, sugar-free fruit jelly, unsalted nuts (check if your child’s school policy allows nuts first) and rice or corn cakes. To find out more visit the Change4Life website: https://www.nhs.uk/change4life/food-facts/healthier-snacks-for-kids/100-calorie-snacks
Healthy lunchbox recipes:
These ideas are here to inspire you, feel free to adapt them to suit you!
Sandwich, wrap, bagel, chapati or pitta: you could try cooked chicken with red onion, sweetcorn and low-fat mayonnaise; or canned salmon with salad leaves, cucumber, chopped tomato and low fat Greek yogurt; or falafel with lettuce, tomato and reduced fat hummus or tzatziki.
Salad: base salads on pasta, rice, couscous, quinoa, grains like bulgur wheat or potatoes. Choose wholegrains where you can and leave skins on potatoes if possible. Some supermarkets also sell fun pasta shapes for kids such as animals or cartoon characters. Here are some ideas for combinations that could be mixed with any starchy food: canned tuna with mixed beans and grated carrot, Mediterranean vegetables with cottage or soft cheese, or canned chick peas with sweetcorn and cherry tomatoes.
Homemade mini pizza: to make the pizza spread tomato purée and fresh or dried herbs onto pitta bread. Add toppings like cooked chicken or tuna vegetables such as spinach, sweetcorn, peppers or courgette, and some grated cheese or mozzarella. Grill the pizza until the cheese melts then cool and refrigerate overnight.
Frittatas: these are great for using up leftovers as you can add any vegetables, beans, pulses, meats or cheese you like along with beaten egg. You could try these combinations: sweet potato, chickpea and spinach; pea, mint and courgette; canned salmon, tomato and herbs. For some inspiration, click here to see our fast veg frittata recipe as part of our series to get children cooking ‘Made with love, shared with love’.
To help put your lunchbox together you could use the British Nutrition Foundation’s (BNF) lunchbox builder resource. This handy flow chart can be used with your child and includes everything needed for a healthy lunch. The resource can be downloaded from the BNF website here.