Fifteen easy and nutritious lunchbox ideas

by Catherine Lippe, Nutritionist

If you're making packed lunches for your child when they start school, five times every week, you might well find that you're filling their lunchbox with the same thing every day. Sure, sandwiches are great, but if you wanted to mix things up a bit, get your child trying new foods and ensure that you give them a balanced meal, then look no further. We've got a handy downloadable set of ideas for you to try including links to recipes on BBC Food. You can mix and match the ingredients or ideas to suit your budget and whatever leftovers you have that day. The portions have been designed for primary school children, but for older children and adults simply size up!

Text outlining school lunches with animated pictures of a wrap and a girl.
Fifteen fun and nutritious packed lunch ideas
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You can find extra information on four of the ideas below plus some top tips to ensure your lunchboxes provide a balance of nutrients whilst being appealing to children.

What goes into a healthy packed lunch?

Bread, cereals, potatoes and other starchy foods

  • How many? At least one item from this food group.
  • Examples: sandwiches, pitta bread, wraps, pasta salad, potato salad, potato or sweet potato wedges, rice dishes, couscous, bread sticks, crackers, rice cakes, plain popcorn.
  • Why? These foods will provide energy, fuel for vital tissues and organs including the brain, as well as fibre, B vitamins and other minerals.
  • Top tip: try to include some wholegrain varieties from this food group each week - they provide extra fibre. Wholegrain starchy foods include, brown, wholemeal, granary or 50/50 bread, whole wheat pasta and brown rice.

Fruits and vegetables

  • How many? At least one fruit and one vegetable.
  • Examples: fresh fruit, tinned fruits, dried fruits, salad items, any type of vegetables. You could include vegetable sticks for dipping or add veggies to salads, pasta or rice or couscous dishes.
  • Why? Fruit and vegetables are a good source of vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants.
  • Top tip: aim for a variety of colours. Not only will it make the lunchbox look more appetising but it also provides a variety of different vitamins and minerals. If using tinned fruit make sure it is tinned in juice and not syrup to keep sugar content low.

Dairy and dairy alternatives

  • How many? At least one portion of dairy or fortified dairy alternative.
  • Examples: cheese, yoghurts (or dairy-free alternative e.g. soya yoghurts), custard (soya custard), rice pudding, a carton of milk or yoghurt-based smoothies, carton of milk or a dairy-free alternative such as soya, oat milk or coconut milk.
  • Why? Dairy foods provide calcium, iodine, vitamin B12, vitamin A and protein.
  • Top tip: If you’re using a dairy-free alternative check the label to ensure it has been fortified with calcium and other vitamins and minerals.

Meat, fish, eggs, beans and other non-dairy sources of protein

  • How many? At least one portion from this food group.
  • Examples: chicken, turkey, pork, beef, lamb, beans, fish, shellfish, lentils, chickpeas, pulses, hummus, quorn or soya products such as tofu.
  • Why? These foods provide protein, iron and zinc. Iron is particularly important as our bodies cannot make iron so we rely on obtaining it solely from the foods we eat. Children who do not eat enough iron are at risk of iron deficiency anaemia which can affect both mental and physical development and performance.
  • Top tip: Unless your child is vegetarian or vegan try to include at least one portion of fish each week. Oily fish is particularly beneficial for children’s cognitive development. Oily fish, includes fresh, tinned or frozen salmon, sardines, pilchards, mackerel and herring.

Drinks

  • Milk and water are the best drinks for children because they are tooth-friendly.
  • Check your school’s food and drink policy to see what other drinks they allow. Schools may not allow sugar-sweetened soft drinks and fizzy drinks because they cause tooth decay. Ask your school for details of their food and nutrition policy if you haven’t seen it.

Lunchbox ideas

We've picked out four of the fifteen Starting Primary School downloadable lunchbox ideas to give you some top tips on some of the ingredients. Remember lunches with perishable items should be kept in a cool bag or in the fridge.

1. Wholemeal pitta pizza topped with chicken and peppers, and tinned peaches with natural yoghurt

Pitta pizzas are easy to make, cheap and ready in minutes. With a tomato purée base and topped with cooked chicken and peppers you can create a perfectly balanced, appetising lunchbox dish which will trump the humble sandwich hands down. When you want a change from a piece of fruit for pudding, try switching to tinned fruit instead. If it is tinned in juice and not syrup it still counts towards one of your child's five-a-day. Serve this with natural yoghurt for a balanced and healthy lunchbox dessert, just don’t forget the spoon!

Ingredients per pitta bread: 50g Cheese (grated) 2 Tomatoes (sliced) 2tsp Mixed herbs 2tbsp Tomato Puree

2. Tuna and sweetcorn pasta, and a piece of fruit

This lunch contains the perfect store cupboard recipe. Simply cook some dried pasta (try wholemeal pasta for extra fibre or half white, half wholemeal combo if you prefer), add in a tin of tuna, some chopped cherry tomatoes or tomato purée and a tin of sweetcorn and hey presto you have covered all four food groups in one dish. What could be simpler? Let your child choose their favourite fruit choice for pudding to boost vitamin, antioxidant and fibre intake for the day.

3. Spicy tortilla nests with chopped tomatoes, and natural yoghurt with raisins and oats.

This lunchbox recipe is a great way to use up leftover cooked mince from an evening’s dinner. Beef or lamb mince is another excellent source of iron. Kidney beans or soya mince will also provide some iron. The vitamin C from the tinned ratatouille helps your child to absorb this iron. Follow this with some natural yoghurt topped with raisins for natural sweetness and extra vitamins plus a sprinkle of oats for added fibre.

4. Tinned salmon roll-ups with sliced pepper sticks and an oat bar

This recipe which uses salmon (cooked, tinned or smoked) is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids and perfect for boosting your child’s brain power. NB Oily fish such a salmon should be limited to two portions a week for girls and four portions a week for boys. Serve in a wholemeal wrap (for extra fibre) with cream cheese (for calcium and extra protein). You could also include a portion of sliced pepper sticks (for more fibre, vitamins, minerals and antioxidants) to make a perfectly balanced and super simple lunchbox filler. The nut-free oaty bars can be made in advance and are a great addition to give your child extra energy so they are raring to go.

Oaty Bars: Makes 16. Ingredients: 2 large bananas 120ml vegetable oil 180g porridge oats 100g cranberries 75g mixed dried fruit 50g desiccated coconut Method: 1. Peel and mash the bananas until smooth 2. In a large bowl add the oil and porridge oats and stir well allowing the oats to soak up the oil 3. Add the mashed banana, cranberries, dried fruit and coconut and stir well until the mixture is fully combined and sticking together 4. Press into a baking tray or brownie tray 5. Bake for 20-25 minutes at 180 degrees Celsius or until golden brown 6. Leave to cool before slicing into squares.

For further information check out the rest of Starting Primary School which has lots of ways to help prepare children for different aspects of school life – both practically and emotionally.

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