Packing healthy lunches for your child’s day
A healthy lunch box full of fresh food gives your child energy to play, concentrate and learn all day.
How much you put in your child’s lunch box depends on the length of your child’s day.
For example, children who go to child care, kinder or school for six hours a day might need to bring food for morning tea and lunch. Children who go for longer periods might also need afternoon tea.
It’s also a good idea to pack a bottle with tap water for your child to drink and refill. Fruit juice and soft drinks are high in sugar and aren’t recommended for children because they can lead to tooth decay and other health problems.
Getting your child involved in choosing, preparing and packing his own lunch box will make him more likely to eat it – so it’s great to let him lend a helping hand.
Healthy lunch ideas
Packing a lunch box from home means you can offer your child a range of healthy lunch options from the five food groups:
- grain foods – bread, pasta, breakfast cereals, rice, corn and so on
- reduced-fat dairy – milk, cheese, yoghurt and so on
- lean meat, fish or chicken, canned tuna or salmon, eggs and legumes, including peas, beans, lentils, chickpeas, nuts, tofu and so on.
Here are some healthy lunch ideas that get the five food groups into your child’s lunch box:
- a sandwich with wholegrain bread and a filling like salad, cheese, lean meat or falafel
- different breads for extra interest – rye breads, baguettes, seeded rolls, pita bread pockets, flat bread, foccacia, rice cakes, corn thins or turkish bread
- dips like hummus, tzatziki or beetroot, along with pita or crackers and vegetable sticks for dipping
- potato salad, chickpea salad, quinoa salad, Greek salad or tabbouleh
- leftover pasta, rice and noodle dishes kept and eaten cold, or kept cold and reheated
- yoghurt and fruit or muesli, kept cold.
If your child won’t eat anything but white bread, try a high-fibre, low-GI loaf. These are more nutritious than white bread and will stop your child from getting hungry again too quickly after lunch.
Healthy snack options
Fresh fruit, stewed fruit in natural juice, a small serve of dried fruit, muesli, yoghurt, pieces of cheese, fruit bread, rice cakes, pikelets and wholegrain crackers all make nutritious snacks.
You could also try making your own healthy muffins or cakes using vegetables or fruit – for example, sultanas, carrot, banana, pumpkin or zucchini.
Sweet cakes are best kept for special occasions like birthdays.
Most families are busy, so it’s good to look for tasty, simple and easy lunch box options. You can make sandwiches or homemade snacks like healthy muffins or pancakes the night before or on the weekend, freeze them and pop them into the lunch box each day.
Sandwich, flat bread and pita bread fillings
Unusual and interesting fillings can get your child excited about her sandwich, so why not be a little adventurous?
For example, you could try flat or pita bread with chopped carrot, celery, capsicum, snow peas or cucumber. What about cherry tomatoes, corn, beetroot or sprouts with dips? Or add grated carrot, zucchini, sliced red cabbage, raisins or sultanas, sliced apple or fresh herbs.
Here are more ideas for sandwich combinations:
- cheese and grated carrot
- cheese, pineapple (drain and pat dry with kitchen paper) and lettuce
- cheese and chutney or sliced gherkin (pickled cucumber)
- cottage cheese or ricotta and chives or dates
- curried egg or mashed boiled egg and lettuce
- mashed egg and chives, dill or parsley
- omelette, tomato and rocket
- apple and raisin
- chicken (well cooked, fresh and kept cold), mayo and celery
- chicken, pesto and red capsicum
- avocado (squeeze on lemon juice to stop it going brown), tomato (remove seeds to stop bread going soggy) and coriander
- drained canned tuna, stuffed green olives and tomato (remove seeds)
- seasoned and baked tofu (available ready made).
Foods to keep out of lunch boxes
Meats like salami, mortadella, Strasburg, smoked turkey and pastrami are highly processed and salty. They can also be fatty. You might want to save these for every now and then, rather than packing them every day.
Check the ‘allowable’ foods policy at your child’s centre, preschool or school. Many centres and schools ask that you don’t pack certain foods – for example, eggs or anything with nuts. This is to protect children with allergies from coming into contact with those foods.
Getting kids to eat their lunch
Kids usually want to eat quickly so that they can play. Here are ideas to make it easy for them.
Keep it simple
- Choose foods that are simple and easy to eat. Some children might not want to spend time on fiddly packaging or food that makes their hands sticky.
- Make sure that containers seal well but can be opened easily – do a test at home. It might be that your child isn’t eating lunch because it’s hard to get at!
Keep it small and easy to handle
- Cut bread into thin slices.
- Cut sandwiches into quarters to make them easier to manage.
- Use less rather than more sandwich filling.
- Go for small fruits like strawberries, blueberries and grapes.
- Cut larger fruits like oranges, watermelon and rockmelon into pieces that your child can eat easily and quickly. But keep apples whole, so they don’t go brown.
- Avoid soggy sandwiches by keeping spreads to a minimum and removing seeds from tomatoes.
- Drain juices from fruit and anything else that has liquid.
- Put food into reusable containers or wraps.
If there’s no other choice, your child is more likely to eat the healthy food you’ve packed. So avoid putting in sweet treats like muesli bars and salty or fatty treats like packets of chips.
Check the food labels on any packaged foods you put into your child’s lunch boxes. Healthy lunch box options are low in sugar, fat and salt.
Keeping food fresh and safe
Before preparing your child’s lunch box, always wash your hands well with warm soapy water. Make sure all chopping boards and utensils are clean and dry.
Any lunch box containing meat, fish, chicken, eggs, noodles, rice, pasta, yoghurt, cheese or milk needs to be kept cold, so choose an insulated lunch box or one that can fit a freezer pack or small bottle of frozen water. This will stop the growth of harmful bacteria, which could make your child sick.
Also make sure to check the use-by date for items like yoghurt and milk.
If you make your child’s lunch the night before, put it in the fridge (below 5°C) straight away. In the morning, add a bottle of frozen water to the lunch box to keep it cool until lunch time.
If you’re packing a warm food like soup, heat it up in the morning and pack in a thermos – it will still be warm at lunchtime. Add a wholemeal bread roll for extra fibre.
Some schools have microwaves for children to heat their lunches, so check whether your school has one.
If you follow these steps, it’ll help your child avoid food poisoning.
When you’re buying lunch boxes, choose ones that are easy to clean and dry. Insulated lunch boxes are great, but they can sometimes be hard to keep clean.