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Healthy packed lunches and school meals

Healthy packed lunches and school meals

While school lunches packed with vitamin-rich superfoods would do our children the world of good, in the real world children may be fussy eaters, parents are often busy and budgets may be tight. How can we ensure that your child's packed lunch is healthy and - importantly - being eaten?

What's in a typical school meal?

When it comes to school meals, government guidelines1 in England state that schools should provide a balanced offering for lunches. School meals should include:

  • Plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables - one or more portions every day.
  • Unrefined starchy foods such as wholegrain bread or pasta - one or more portions every day.
  • Meat or poultry - three or more days each week.
  • Oily fish - once or more every three weeks.
  • Dairy foods - one portion every day.

They should also severely limit foods high in fat, sugar and salt.

So, schools are expected to limit the intake of certain foods and ensure a wide variety of healthy, fresh food options. Even government guidance allows for a little treat a few times a week, with fried and high-sugar foods not completely off the menu.

While most schools are signed up to these healthy eating standards, it's important you check with your individual school, which may also be able to provide you with a menu to look at. But providing you are happy with the menu, school meals can pack a nutritional punch that is hard to beat.

These school meal guidelines are in place to ensure that the children are offered a balanced, healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit. Even if you have a fussy eater, it might be worth trying this option, as children are often influenced by what their peers eat.

Creating a filling packed lunch

It's important that your child's packed lunch is healthy, nutritious and sufficiently filling. Bahee Van de Bor, paediatric dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, says:

"Growing children need the right nutrition to develop and learn at school. Iron-rich foods have a role in thinking and memory to support learning. Slow releasing and high-fibre carbohydrate foods will help fill hungry bellies so they feel full and satisfied during the school day."

Packed lunch ideas for slow-release carbs:

  • Making sandwiches with wholemeal bread.
  • Including some wholemeal pasta salad.

Packed lunch ideas for iron-rich foods:

  • Including dried fruit snacks, such as apricots.
  • Pasta or salad additions like beans, chicken, eggs, or lentils.

Also make sure you pack as much fresh fruit and veg in as possible - research2 shows a clear link between higher fruit and vegetable intake and better mental health and wellbeing among secondary school pupils.

Packed lunch ideas

A healthy packed lunch should contain a good balance of health-giving foods, fruits and vegetables. Van de Bor says a nutritious lunch box will have the right balance of:

  • High-fibre carbohydrate-rich foods - such as wholemeal bread, pasta, and flatbreads.
  • Iron-rich protein foods - such as meat, chicken, and lentils.
  • A side of calcium-rich foods, such as yoghurt, cheese or a cream cheese spread.
  • At least one serving of fruit and vegetables for vitamins and minerals.

What does this look like?

This healthy packed-lunch may seem a little overwhelming at first glance, but in food terms could be achieved with:

  • A tuna mayo sandwich on brown bread.
  • A yoghurt.
  • A banana


  • A wholemeal flatbread cheese sandwich with tomato.
  • A low-sugar dairy-rich dessert on the side.
  • A side of strawberries and blueberries.

What about drinks?

When it comes to drinks, water is best to fuel your child's mind and body throughout the day. Not all children will drink water on its own. You can try adding a slice of lemon or orange to add flavour - or these alternative drinks are also beneficial:

  • Homemade fruit juices or smoothies - are packed with vitamins but beware of the sugar content. These could be given one or two days a week or diluted with water to make them healthier.
  • Whole milk - to promote bone health.

Try to avoid shop-bought fruit juices and fizzy drinks. These usually contain refined sugars, additives, and chemicals which aren't nutritious, can damage your child's teeth, and may increase their risk of obesity.

Whilst there are many inspirational websites online for packed lunches ideas, they don't have to be fancy or filled with hard-to-source and expensive grains to provide optimum nutrition for your child.

However, it is a good idea to regularly give your child new foods - even if you're not sure whether they will get eaten. For example, putting in something extra, like a carrot stick, can help improve your child's understanding of the types of nutritious foods available - even if they don't eat it.

False friends

There's nothing worse than finding out the item you've packed lovingly for your child believing it to be healthy, is actually a sugar-rich snack masquerading as something beneficial. The food industry often packages food to appeal to children, and uses words such as 'light' and phrases like 'contains real fruit' that can be misleading for consumers.

"There is a range of snacks that are marketed as being suitable for children because they're based on fruit. However, the fruit has been changed into a pulp or is blended. This releases sugars that behave like free sugars in the body," explains Van de Bor.

Some yoghurts made for children may also contain high levels of sugar, so check the label and try to choose yoghurts with less than 9% sugar in total.

A packed lunch treat?

While it's important to keep an eye on the overall lunch box content, realistically most parents will want to slip in a little treat from time to time. Guidance to schools for school meals allows for small amounts of fried and high-sugar foods - up to two servings of fried or breadcrumb coated food per week, as well as yoghurt or 'fruit-based desserts' containing at least 50% fruit.

If you can include sweet but relatively healthy snacks that your child views as a treat - even better. Examples include flapjacks made with dried fruit and honey instead of refined sugar, muffins crammed with healthy berries, or for drinks whizzing up a colourful vitamin-rich smoothie or adding some lemon or orange slices to water to give it some citrus-zing.

Moderation is key, and being too restrictive about what children eat can cause stress, or problems later in life. In addition, often friends will have a treat in their packed lunch, and your child may feel pressure to have something similar.

Likewise, school dinners will offer a pudding of some sort. It's all about variety, moderation and an overall healthy balance.

Healthy balance/healthy attitude

When it comes to food, moderation and balance are key. It's important to provide a school lunch that is healthy and contains plenty of variety. However, it's also crucial not to let the 'perfect be the enemy of the good'. So while it may not be feasible to pack the ultimate health-giving school lunch each day, including fruit and vegetables, keeping things varied and trying to provide as good a balance as possible will go a long way to ensuring your child has all the nutritional input they need.

Further reading

  1. GOV.UK: School meals - food standards.
  2. Hayhoe et al: Cross-sectional associations of schoolchildren’s fruit and vegetable consumption, and meal choices, with their mental well-being: a cross-sectional study.
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