What makes a great packed lunch?

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1. Is lunch the most important meal of the day?

Packing lunches is another job to fit into the morning scramble when there’s no time to get creative and prepare fresh food from scratch.

Even though school meals are under more scrutiny than ever, kids' packed lunches don't seem to have been touched by the food revolution. Leeds Beckett University surveyed 1,000 parents and found that over half included processed savoury snacks and confectionery every day. Fewer than half included any vegetable snacks. The situation appears so bad that the School Food Plan supports headteachers in banning packed lunches altogether. Is there another way?

2. What’s so bad about…?

1,000 parents surveyed by Leeds Beckett University packed these items most often in their lunches. How does it stack up?

Ham sandwich

Not bad, but...

High in salt

One slice of bread can contain twice as much salt as a slice of ham! For younger children this sandwich may contain half their recommended daily amount of salt.

Cheese crackers

Oh dear...

High in salt and saturated fat

Seems like a good alternative, but crackers have more saturated fat and salt than the same amount of salted crisps. Both snacks contain only empty calories.

Chocolate bar

No surprises...

High in sugar

Even a small sized milk chocolate bar (21g) contains over two teaspoons of sugar. That’s more than a third of the recommended daily amount for children.

Fruit flavoured yoghurt

Watch out!

High in added sugar?

Check the label of a brand’s plain yoghurt versus their sweetened fruit variety to get a sense of the added sugars. It can be over a teaspoon per pot.

3. Say goodbye to the same old sandwiches

Make a step-change from sandwiches. Here are eight fresh packed lunch ideas without a crisp in sight.

Making mac and cheese for dinner? Bake a little extra in muffin cups to pack. Forks are optional!

Wholewheat pasta adds a little more fibre to the classic tuna sweetcorn combo. Making it in the morning? Cool drained pasta under a cold tap and you're ready to pack.

If you're boiling the kettle for morning tea, pour some of the water over a nest of noodles for 10 minutes. Drain, then add fresh or frozen veg and a little low-salt soy sauce. Done!

Vary the way you cut up fruit and vegetables to keep it interesting. No one wants to eat the same meal everyday.

Dips are a great way to get kids to eat a little extra veg, especially hummous. But swap crisps for baked pitta bread chips. They’ll stay crunchy in an airtight box for a few days.

Reduce the added sugar and cost by potting up your own fruit and yoghurt. A DIY oat crumble topping will stay crunchy if stored separately.

Wraps make sandwiches more interesting shapes – choose the wholemeal seeded variety for more fibre and nutrients. Making your own cereal bars will also save money and reduce sugar quantities.

Kids can customise these mini omelettes with the veg they like. Silicone wrappers are a great way of packaging up all kinds of foods in a lunchbox and add colour.

4. How to get kids to eat more fruit and veg

All your efforts of packing healthy snacks may seem fruitless if you suspect it’s quietly thrown in the bin. Go beyond apples and cucumber sticks with a few simple tips.

  • Make fruit and veg easier and quicker to eat by ensuring it’s bite-sized.
  • Cut up a whole melon, mango or pineapple into cubes and store in the fridge. It will take seconds to add to a lunchbox.
  • Cut an apple into slices and reassemble around the core, secured with a rubber band. This makes apples easier to nibble without going brown.
  • Make fruit the dessert – fruits like melon, mango and grapes are expensive and taste sweet enough to count as a special treat.
  • Dried fruit is a great snack, but has quite a lot of sugar. Pack as much dried fruit in a serving as you’d eat if it was fresh.

5. Easy ideas for healthy fast food

With these simple, quick and portable ideas, a healthy packed lunch is in the bag.

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6. More tips and tricks

Do some marketing

Kids respond to bright colours, shiny packets and fun characters. That’s why companies use them to sell processed foods and costly character-branded snacks.

Take a leaf from their book and choose fun freezer blocks, bright mini pots, or get creative and draw your own art on disposable plastic food bags. Let kids change their lunchboxes often. Use different sized pots that are easy to open.

Don't skimp on good fats

Many parents may worry that their children won't eat enough if they don't pack lots of their favourite snack foods. Switch to foods that are full of energy and satisfying - but also full of nutrients. Nuts and nut butters (if your school allows), oily fish such as salmon, hummus, or full-fat unsweetened yoghurt fill kids up fast. Combining these with fruit or veg - such as slices of apple and cheese, banana and yoghurt, or celery and peanut butter - can also help increase their five-a-day.

Drinking enough water

Give children a see-through bottle with small horizontal lines drawn on the side in permanent marker. They can gauge how much water they've drunk throughout the day, and so can you.