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Simple and affordable ideas for balanced school lunch boxes

back to school nutrition predictable parenting routines school readiness

As the new school year begins, parents are once again faced with the onerous task of preparing packed lunches that are both nutritious and appealing to their young children.

In a world filled with elaborate social media posts showcasing intricate lunch creations which are sure to make eating packed lunches or new foods fun, they aren’t feasible for most parents who are short on time, energy and resources and simply need to be able to pack a box quickly.

So, how can we make preparing balanced packed lunches easy and stress-free for both you and your child? In this post, we'll explore some practical and affordable lunch box ideas to help you both skip joyfully into the new school year.

One step at a time

Children need to embrace a lot of change when they start school; a change of environment, routine, friendship groups, activities, carers, as well as food. All of this change can have an impact on how well they eat, even if they’re usually good eaters.

Hang on in there and don’t let it stress you out. Instead, help your child by taking it one step at a time, by striking a balance between nutritious and familiar foods. It's wise to include their favourite foods while gradually introducing new ones. Change to start with can be as simple as a different bread product to normal, grated cheese instead of slices or a different brand or flavour of yoghurt.

Remember also that children can become overwhelmed by the amount of food we serve them, especially unfamiliar foods, so start with very small amounts until they become comfortable eating them. Don’t be tempted to pack the box to the brim either, consider how much your child can actually eat in the limited time available at school.   

Think about presentation

While I'm not proposing you turn sandwiches or vegetables into stars or teddy bear shapes, novelty and visually appealing presentations can encourage children to explore more foods. There are ways we can do this without getting up at the crack of dawn to have enough time to prepare the lunch box.

For example, opting for a fruit kebab or simply cutting fruit into small pieces instead of offering whole fruits will make it easier to eat and increase the likelihood of the fruit being consumed. Similarly, vegetables don't always have to be sliced into sticks; consider using a peeler to make ribbons or a crinkle cutter for added texture.

Have a think also about the box you use. Is it one your child likes or has chosen, that makes them smile and want to open it up to see what’s inside? Is it one which will help your child to eat better, such as a bento-style lunch box with little compartments and tiny pots - children often like to have their food separated, so these boxes are just the ticket. You don’t have to splash out on something new and can make your own by putting little pots, boxes and muffin cases in a large plastic container.

Involve your child

Empower your child to eat better by involving them in the lunch-packing process. Sit down together to plan their lunches for the week, let them pick or give you ideas of some of the things they’d like in their box or agree on a new fruit or vegetable to try that week. By giving them some control over their lunch, they'll be more likely to enjoy it.

Also, don’t feel that you have to put all the lunch together yourself, children enjoy helping in the kitchen and if there isn’t time for that the night before or in the morning, provide the makings of whatever you have planned for lunch and let them put it together (or not!) at school – an interactive lunch is a fun lunch which is more likely to be eaten.

Embrace batch cooking

At the weekend or when you have a bit of time, prepare larger quantities of snacks (popcorn, nut-free trail mix, granola bars) or lunch components (veggies, hard-boiled eggs, pasta) that can be easily assembled during the week.

Fill the freezer with savoury and/or fruit muffins, flapjacks, scones, bread products and other items that you can grab to put in the box. They will defrost by lunchtime and help keep the box contents cool at the same time.

Leftovers from last night’s dinner (or cooking extra of some of the ingredients) might also be helpful and save you some prep time.

A variety of foods is important

Including a variety of foods from different food groups in every box will ensure that the packed lunch is going to keep them going from lunch to afternoon snack.

Children need plenty of carbohydrates to fuel them, as well as some protein, dairy, vegetables and fruit.

Whilst sandwiches are great for lunch boxes, they aren’t the only thing you can pack. Wraps, pittas, oatcakes, or crackers, pasta or noodles, pinwheel pizzas, sushi, soup, frittatas, muffins and other items can help keep the box varied. On the side, different coloured vegetables, perhaps some raw and some cooked with a small pot of dip, and fresh, dried or frozen fruits with yoghurt.

Don’t worry though, if your child wants the same foods day after day to begin with. Once they get used to the change and into the new routine, you’ll be able to start to introduce some variety. Do whatever they need to eat well at first. You can always focus more on variety at home.

Lead by example 

Children learn about how to behave in the world by watching us and the other adults around them. When, at home, if they see you enjoying a wide variety of foods, they're more likely to be curious and open to exploring them as well. So, when you can, eat together and show them that food is delicious and that mealtimes can be fun and sociable. They’ll take this experience with them in their lunch box, too.

Remember, the goal is to make embracing balanced packed lunches a positive and enjoyable experience for both you and your child, ensuring lunchtime stress is replaced with excitement and anticipation.


Sarah Adler of Kitchen Titbits is a family mealtimes mentor and a Parenting Community app team member.

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