Lunch and snack ideas for back to school

This year’s back-to-school is like no other. Your child could be navigating bubbles and staggered timetables – and for many school lunches will be affected.

Schools will have different ways of managing lunch under Covid-19 guidelines. Some may keep kids in the classroom, others will stagger lunchtimes so the dining hall can be used, possibly with some very early and late sittings.

Whether you’re packing lunches, or snacks to keep your child satisfied between breaks, we’ve put our heads together with Eat Well for Less? dietitian Priya Tew to come up with top tips, ideas and advice.

3 easy tricks for a healthy lunchbox

Kids may know what’s healthy, but they don’t always like it. You won’t win every battle, but these tips could keep their diet healthier.

  • Always include fruit and vegetables, even if it’s just cucumber slices, carrot sticks or sweetcorn in a sandwich.
  • Always include dairy or another calcium-rich food, as kids are building bones, for which calcium is needed. Plain yoghurt with frozen blueberries or granola topping is popular.
  • Switch from white to wholegrain bread and pasta, to keep kids feeling full throughout the day.

Primary school kids

Variety and interest is key, especially if your child is eating lunch at the same desk at which they have lessons all day. Kids might be sceptical about trying new foods, but Priya advises, “Let them help themselves to meals or make their own lunches from a balanced selection of foods. This can encourage them to eat it.”

Alternatives to the usual ham sandwich

A pasta pot is a popular choice – simple tomato sauce, grated cheese and peas, or another veg-packed sauce such as broccoli pesto. Cold potatoes (not going so far as to call it a ‘salad’) are good, especially if the skins are left on for a fibre boost that will help keep kids feeling full. Serve them with a good protein source such as a boiled egg, cold chicken drumsticks, tuna or smoked mackerel. Crisp pitta chips are a crunchy cross between a sandwich and crisps – dip them in hummus or raita.

If a sandwich is still the most practical option, vary fillings: hummus and grated carrot, tuna and sweetcorn, leftover roast chicken with pesto, or simple sliced boiled eggs and tomato. Leftover cold meatloaf or meatballs also make a surprisingly good sandwich.

Hot packed lunch ideas

You can pack many things into an insulated flask: soup, of course, but also veggie curry, bean or lentil stew and chilli con carne. Making slightly more dinner than you need, so they can have leftovers for lunch, saves time too. Pre-heat the flask with boiling water for 5–10 minutes before filling it with piping hot food and it should stay hot for around 4 hours.

Hot soup in a flask with crusty bread and butter is a welcome hug from home!

Monday treats

Get kids baking with you on Sunday and they’ll be eager to eat the results on Monday. Why should Friday have all the fun?

Your home bakes don’t have to be sugary – cheese muffins and wholemeal cheese scones make an excellent change from sandwiches. Healthier, nut-free flapjacks can be made with a limited amount of added sugar and a dose of fibre, as can banana muffins.

Snacks

If lunchtimes and breaktimes move around, children may be more reliant on snacks to keep them going. Priya says, “Adding protein to meals and snacks can help keep tummies fuller for longer, as can eating higher-fibre foods. Choose wholegrain versions of foods where you can, and add fruit and veg and a protein filling.

“Sugary foods can give a quick boost of energy, but this is short lived, so sweets, chocolate and yoghurt-coated fruit and biscuits will not keep your child going for long.”

With nuts off the menu at many schools, you may have to find healthy fats and protein elsewhere. Priya suggests: “Energy balls made with seeds and dried fruit; raw veg strips with hummus; cheese portions with grapes and crackers or oatcakes; cream cheese portions with breadsticks and raw veg strips; dry cereal with sunflower seeds and raisins; or even a simple boiled egg.”

Drinks

A bottle of water for the day is a must-have, especially as water fountains are likely to be out of action. Staying hydrated helps with concentration.

You could provide 150ml of juice – it counts as one of their 5-a-day, but the NHS recommends we don’t drink more than this in a day. Buy juice in large cartons and pour it into your own bottle, diluting as much as you can get away with; many standard juice boxes contain 25 percent more than this daily allowance.

Secondary school kids

In our (totally anecdotal) survey of secondary school kids, one thing that came across was that lunches should not be “embarrassing”. Too posh, too healthy, too smelly, too weird, too hard to eat, too “fussed over” – whatever that means.

Lots of teenagers don’t eat 5-a-day and get less than the recommended intake of iron, calcium and some other nutrients.

Get them involved in making their own lunches and snacks. If they’ve invested time and effort, they’ll be more likely to eat them.

Fast and filling breakfasts

If your tween or teen hates getting out of bed, persuading them to eat a good breakfast might be a challenge. Eating on the bus is unlikely to be allowed, so have a ready-to-eat breakfast on hand. Priya’s ideas: “Make-ahead bacon and egg bites, or a breakfast sandwich like an egg mayo bagel”. Nadiya’s egg rolls are made with egg-dipped tortilla wraps and can be frozen after cooking, ready to microwave in seconds.

If that’s all a bit full-on in the morning, try “peanut butter and banana on toast”, suggests Priya. “Personally, I think a bowl of cereal is fast; choose a wholegrain version and throw some berries on top.” Try Priya’s healthy breakfast pot, or go for a smoothie filled with nut butter, seeds, oats and milk for healthy fats and protein that will help keep your child feeling fuller for longer.

Bacon and egg bites make a great grab-and-go breakfast for teenagers who like a lie-in.

Snacks for mid-morning or mid-afternoon break

If they’re eating an early or late lunch, they might need an energy boost to make it through. The snacks that will keep them fuller for longer combine fibre and protein and are low in sugar.

Young environmentalists could be convinced to pack homemade snacks like these vegan energy balls or apricot bars to avoid plastic-wrapped bars.

For cake-lovers, Mary Berry’s carrot cake muffins aren’t as sugary as they’ll imagine, but just as tasty. With added bran, plenty of carrots and a cream cheese middle, they’re fun to make and better than a lower-fibre cake for keeping kids full.

But if you haven’t got time to cook, try:

  • a pot of nuts and dried fruit
  • seeded or wholegrain crackers with cheese
  • whole fruit – pots of grapes or cut up melon/pineapple make a change from a bruised banana
  • a pot of plain yoghurt
  • lightly salted popcorn (no toffee!).

Here are 23 healthy snacks to keep things interesting!

Give crisps and cakes a miss and try Priya Tew’s healthier snacks to keep kids feeling fuller for longer.

Keep lunches interesting

A lunch full of wholegrains and fibre will release energy slowly throughout the afternoon, so kids are not asleep by fifth period even if they have an early lunch.

Keep different wholegrain breads (pitta, rolls, seeded sliced bread) in the freezer – you can defrost them in the toaster in the morning. A customised frittata wedge tastes great stuffed into pitta (and pittas are good at hiding “embarrassing” fillings.)

Use wholemeal wraps to make quesadillas with beans or swap out the beans for leftover cooked chicken and sweetcorn. Use them to make a ‘burrito’ with egg mayo, cooked bacon bits, baby spinach and sun-dried or fresh sliced tomato. A sweeter sandwich – peanut butter and banana or cream cheese and dates – on malt loaf or raisin bread is good, too.

For a heartier option, Tom Kerridge packs his healthier sausage rolls full of vegetables and lentils, but they still have that savoury, moreish taste (or go for the full veggie sausage rolls).

These Eat Well for Less? no-bake snacks are easy to make and very moreish: chickpea bites (watch the video below), raw brownies and peanut energy balls, which are tasty treats with sneaky fibre.

If this is all too embarrassing, and your child isn’t eating much at school, Priya advises plenty of wholegrain snacks to have throughout the day (“cheese, crackers, fruit and veggies, yoghurt”), with a substantial after-school snack. “Expect them to want to have a snack after school that is filling. Toasted sandwiches, bowls of cereal, eggs on toast, bagels etc.”