This post has been written by Nutritionist Laura Matthews (BSc, MSc) – previously Head of Nutrition for Jamie Oliver – with support from SR Nutrition.
Healthy Packed Lunches for Children
I often get asked ‘what should I put in my child’s packed lunch?’. With some children back at school & it being #NationalPicnicWeek with the help of @lau_matthews_nutrition here is my timely guide to making a delicious & nutritious packed lunch for children!
Balancing Packed Lunches
A packed lunch is an important opportunity to provide a wide variety of foods from each of the 4 food groups (listed below) and therefore nutrients & energy to help meet a child’s nutritional demands & requirements.
It’s recommended that a child’s daily packed lunch should include each of the 4 main food groups:
- A portion of starchy carbohydrates, e.g bread, wrap, flatbread, crackers, bagel, pitta, pasta, potato, rice, couscous, etc. Include a combination of white & whole grain options, such as brown rice, pasta & bread. Try & provide a variety over the week.
- A portion of fruit & a portion of salad or vegetables (bite-sized & pre-prepared!). e.g. tomato in a sandwich, chopped grapes or a fruit salad.
- A portion of protein/iron rich food e.g. beans, pulses, eggs, fish, meat or meat-free alternatives. Tinned fish such as salmon or mackerel is a cheap & convenient option, just make sure to check for bones.
- A portion of dairy food such as plain yoghurt, cheese or milk. You could try making a quick yoghurt dip tzatziki style with thick plain yoghurt, grated cucumber, chopped mint & lemon juice for dipping pitta bread fingers or pepper sticks.
- Don’t forget a drink. It’s important to stay hydrated especially in hot weather & when running around, so opt for plain milk or tap water.
Top Tips for a Winning Packed Lunch
- For younger children use crinkle or novelty shaped cutters on fruit & veg. Such as melon, cucumber or courgette for a point of interest.
- From a food safety perspective if there’s no chilled storage facilities in your education setting or you’re going on a picnic, make sure to include a reusable ice pack to keep food cool. Also wrap food well, there’s nothing worse than a dry sarnie!
- Check with your nursery or school for a food/packed lunch policy. What do they allow and not allow? Either way avoid nuts or anything nut based in case of potential nut allergies amongst other children.
- Avoid single use cling film & plastic sandwich bags where possible for environmental reasons. Instead use reusable containers &/or wax wrap.
- Make sure your child can access food & get into little containers easily. Also food should be cut & prepared appropriately without needing much assistance (if at nursery or school).
- Chat to your children about what you’re going to put in their lunchbox. Let them flag the foods they like & don’t like so they have options to give them some independence & control.
- Vary the food offered each day. It’s more exciting for your little ones & helps support a varied diet. Including different coloured fruit & vegetables each day is a good prompt.
- For convenience tinned fruit (in juice, not syrup) is a great option when running low on fresh produce. Pear, mango, peaches & mandarins are widely available & equally delicious!
- Write a rough plan at the start of each week so as to have an idea of what their packed lunch will comprise of each day, with the aim of minimising food waste & utilising leftovers.
- Has your child tried the food before at home first so the food is familiar to them?
- Whether out for a picnic or for a packed lunch, sneak a love note into their lunchbox! They will love finding this surprise & enjoy sharing the ‘thought of the day’ with their mates!
I hope these pointers are helpful & are good prompts to kickstart some new & useful habits in feeding your children especially at lunchtime. Save this post for inspo when you’re next organising your children’s packed lunches or for a picnic adventure! Finally do let me know your FAVOURITE packed lunch item!
See below for some fab ways to offer and serve a balanced packed lunch for your children!
Balanced Packed Lunch Ideas for Children
Sliced, griddled chicken & roasted pepper in a wholewheat wrap (fajita style!) with cucumber, cheese & strawberries plus a bottle of water on the side
Couscous made using frozen parsley, lemon juice, black pepper, extra virgin olive oil & tinned chickpeas, served with raisins, feta & raw crinkle cut yellow pepper
Oaty cheese roll with beetroot, boiled egg & fresh orange slices
Wholemeal bagel with cream cheese, tinned smoked mackerel (always check for bones), cooked courgette & blueberries (halve them for babies & younger children)
Wholewheat wrap with leftover falafel & roasted pepper, sweet potato wedges, pot of plain yoghurt & frozen strawberries that have defrosted by lunchtime (use fresh & quarter the strawberries for babies & younger children)
Wholemeal pitta bread fingers with roasted, spiced chicken, crinkle cut raw carrots, plain yoghurt pot with tinned mango (blitzed into a puree and swirled through)
Penne pasta salad with chopped cucumber, salmon, plain yoghurt & tinned, chopped mango – This idea is perfect picnic food; pasta salad is a great option to eat on a hot day & easy to eat
Roasted baby potatoes, chicken, with a plain yoghurt, cucumber, lemon & mint dip (tzatziki style) + raspberries
Note: If you’d like to include some love notes of your own, the ones used in these photos are free to download here: