What makes a great kid's packed lunch?

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. School meals are under more scrutiny than ever and yet 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 of their childrens' lunchboxes included processed savoury snacks and confectionery every day. Fewer than half included any vegetable snacks.

What's so bad about?

  • A ham sandwich: a slice of bread can have 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: they can have more saturated fat and salt than the same weight of salted crisps. Both snacks are packed with empty calories.
  • Milk chocolate: even a small bar (21g) contains over 2 teaspoons of sugar. That’s more than a third of the recommended daily amount for children.
  • A pot of sweetened fruit yoghurt: can contain over 1 teaspoon of sugar. Check the label of a brand’s plain yoghurt versus their sweetened variety.

The main event

  • Make a little extra of dinner: Mac and cheese or tuna and sweetcorn pasta salad make a filling and nutritious lunch. Kids can also customise their own mini omelettes for a fun, fork-free lunch.
  • Pour boiling water over dried noodles when making your morning tea. Ten minutes later they're ready to toss with some veg for an easy noodle salad to take to school.
  • *Hummus is packed with protein and fibre and is very cost-efficient when you make it yourself. Make a large batch and pack it into serving pots for kids to eat with carrot sticks or pitta chips.
  • Wraps make sandwiches into interesting shapes. Choose a wholemeal variety for more fibre and nutrients and pack it with their favourite fillings.

Fruity snacks

All your efforts of packing healthy snacks may seem fruitless if you suspect they’re quietly thrown in the bin. Go beyond apples and cucumber sticks to keep them interested, with a few simple tips.

  • Make fruit and veg bite-sized so it's easier and quicker to eat.
  • Cut up a whole melon, mango or pineapple to store in the fridge. It will take seconds to add to lunchboxes.
  • Cut an apple into slices and reassemble around the core, secured with a rubber band. This makes it easier to nibble and it doesn't go brown – genius!
  • Make fruit the dessert: 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 the same number of pieces of dried fruit in a serving as you would if it were fresh.
  • Pot up your own yoghurt and top with fruit to avoid extra added sugar from shop-bought products.

Savoury snacks

Batch-make any of these snacks to pack into lunchboxes in the mornings.

  • DIY crumble: a little goes a long way and makes a pot of plain yoghurt or tinned fruit more appealing.
  • Homemade cereal bars take 10 minutes to mix together. They still contain added sugar and fat, but you can be sure of exactly what’s in them.
  • Pitta chips use up stale bread and make excellent dippers. Wholemeal pitta chips have extra fibre, too. Serve with homemade hummus.
  • Oven-baked chickpeas are crisp and crunchy and can be flavoured with a little salt or spices. They don’t cost much and are loaded with nutrients.
  • Chocolate-drizzled rice cakes make a little chocolate go a long way – plus you’ll get extra fibre from the rice cakes.
  • Popcorn takes 5 minutes and can be flavoured in a million ways. Shake over a little sugar-free hot chocolate powder, or go savoury with smoked paprika or chilli powder.
  • Heard of ants on a log? Celery and peanut butter might sound odd, but it's big in America. Combining fruit with nut butters can get protein in a lunch without a boring sandwich.

Tips and tricks

Think 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). Choose fun lunch boxes or bright mini pots, or draw your own art on disposable food bags. Let kids change their lunchboxes often. Use different sized pots that are easy to open.

Don't skimp on good fats: 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.

Hydration: 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.