I believe that giving children a healthy lunchbox, that is nourishing and enjoyable for them to eat, is vitally important. However, the humble lunchbox tends to be the Cinderella of food and doesn’t get the attention and care it merits. It gets brushed aside, because we tend to think of it as just ‘something to get the kids through the day’, while their real diet consists of the meals they eat at home.
Pack Your Kids Lunchbox Right
But I believe that what we pack for our children’s lunches has a special importance that we often overlook. Lunchbox food has a role in providing emotional sustenance to children, as well as physical nourishment. Let me explain—when I used to stand at my kitchen worktop, getting the school lunchbox ready, I always had a very strong feeling that I was literally sending my love for my daughter, in that little tupperware box, as she went off for the day, away from me, into the big wide world!
Lunchbox food is comfort food, especially for very young children. It is their little piece of home that they bring with them into the world of school, or daycare, with all of the challenges that they will face there. So lunchboxes are about more than just food and they deserve our care and attention for that reason—they carry within them the taste of home and all of what home means to a child.
Steer Clear of Lunchbox Junk!
Making healthy lunchbox meals is an integral part of developing healthy eating habits for your kids and not giving them a taste for processed, junk foods that can lead to problems like diabetes and obesity. The quality of what you put in their lunchboxes is therefore very important, because bad lunchbox food can completely undermine your efforts to keep your kids eating a healthy diet. It is vital, therefore, not to think of lunchbox food as less significant, or as separate from the rest of the food your family eat.
Prepare healthy lunchbox meals from whatever you normally eat, and don’t buy special, ready-made lunchbox products. Then your kids will get used to healthy eating all the time. When you cut out lunchbox junk, they will enjoy all the other meals you cook for them much more, because they won’t have the expectation of anything else.
When you let them eat lunchbox junk at school, they’ll want to eat junk food at home too. It becomes a vicious circle of bad-eating habits. But when they never get lunchbox junk, there is a continuum and a familiarity in what they are given to eat, both at home and at school. Successful lunchbox food, should be of the same quality as any other meal you feed your child, and as good and as healthy as the food you yourself eat.
A Little Planning And No More Guilt!
Let’s face it, preparing nutritious, delicious and healthy lunchboxes for our children, can be quite an ambitious feat for many of us, on dark winter mornings, as we grope our way from fridge to worktop, still half asleep. Okay, I confess, that is myself I am talking about—I am not a morning person, at least not before daylight!
I had to work out a different way of doing things. And for many of us, this is so—it is not within our capability, in the morning rush, to think up great healthy lunchbox ideas and prepare them with creativity and flourish. And so, we throw together a sandwich of processed cheese with sliced pan bread, a bar from the biscuit tin and a packet of crisps. And we feel guilty about it.
However, it is possible to make wonderful, lunchbox food that is yummy for the kids and easy for you, if you plan in advance and use ingredients from dishes you are already cooking anyway. Then, after some trial and error, you can build up a ready-repetoire of tried-and-tested food your children love, that with a little preparation the night before, can be put together, even on the worst of mornings, by semi-somambulent parents!
Practical Lunchbox Ideas
The first and most basic of healthy ideas is that your child’s lunch must contain food that is already familiar to them. Familiarity is safety for children and, above all, they need whatever is in their lunchbox to be familiar. They will not be amenable to adventurous culinary surprises that they have never tasted before. So, always try out your creative lunchbox ideas a few times at home first!
If you want your children to eat healthy lunches, your family eating habits will have to reflect that. Giving them raw vegetables with a hummus dip for school, when they never see a fresh vegetable at home, will not work. However, because it is easy to find ideas from what was cooked for the previous night’s dinner, it may not be as difficult as you think, for your children to eat nourishing, nutritious food, both at the family dinner table and from their lunchboxes.
Lunchbox Ideas — Healthy Guidelines
A child’s lunchbox should make up a complete meal. When devising your own lunchbox ideas, be sure to include foods from each food group from the food pyramid. For a balanced meal, you need:
- GRAIN (bread, wrap, bagel, cereal, pasta etc.)
- PROTEIN (meat, cheese, fish, tofu, pulses etc.)
- FRESH FRUIT AND VEGETABLES
Government health-promotion agencies also tend to recommend including dairy. However, this is for the calcium content of dairy, which can easily be got from other foods, if you are not too keen on dairy.
As well as your child’s main lunch, also include a mid-morning snack, a healthy dessert and two healthy drinks, at least one of which should be water.
Success with Healthy Lunchbox Ideas
- ***Theory is all very well, but when it comes to putting lunchbox ideas into practice, be sensitive to the challenges your children face at school. They have to endure the comments their classmates may pass on their food. So, even if you have convinced your children to eat something at home, they may not want to bring it to school. They know what they need to do to preserve their social status as cool people, and lunchbox-makers should respect that!
- ***Children are often tempted away from your healthy lunchbox if your school has other, less healthy options, on sale. If your child’s school has a vending machine or cafeteria that stocks fizzy drinks, crisps, sweets, chocolate and unhealthy snacks, SHAME ON THEM! Write a letter to the principal and complain. If schools were funded properly, they would not have to subsidise their running costs by selling these things.
- ***For some children, the most successful lunchboxes are those that require no cutlery to eat them, no equipment, and not a lot of heavy chewing. They regard lunch the way you would regard the opening of an art exhibition. A chance to socialise and gossip while having some nibbles and a drink. Finger-food of course darling!
- ***If your healthy lunchbox ideas are failing and those little tubs are coming home full, or you suspect your kids are doing a lot of swapping, or tipping in the school bin, make up a questionnaire for them to fill out, telling you what they liked and disliked and pop it in their lunchbox. Customer feedback is very important!
- ***Freeze your child’s cold drink and take it out the morning you need it. It will thaw during the day and be nice and chilled when your child goes to drink it. It will also help keep everything else cool. Even water is more delicious when chilled.
- ***Sogginess is the mortal sin of lunchbox preparation as far as your child is concerned. To be a Lunchbox Angel, you must never commit this heinous sin! If the children in your child’s class tend to swap and share lunches, it’s a good idea to pack something especially for that purpose, a good way for your child to develop social skills and learn about sharing.
Lunchbox Ideas for Parents
- *** Having the right array of containers will liberate you! It means you can send whatever type of food your child enjoys, not just sandwiches, day in day out. Have lots of different lunch tubs to hand, suitable for different types of meals. An ordinary rectangular tub is fine for a sandwich, but for a salad and dip you need something with lots of different compartments. When you have the right gear to send it in, you will be more inclined to make different things for your child to eat.
- ***Keep all your lunch-packing gear in one place, so that in the morning, when implementing your healthy lunchboxes, you don’t have to mess around looking for stuff. Try packing condiments and sauces in double, small, zip–lock bags. Just remember to ask your child to seal them again when they are finished.
- ***Make sure your child likes the look of her lunchbox and drink container. Nothing about the lunchbox should be embarrassing to your child, as it will put her off eating. Respect your child’s social cachet!
- ***Use coloured food wrap if you can buy it.
- ***If your healthy lunchbox ideas include hot winter food, get a shallow, wide-brimmed thermos for hot-pot meals and casseroles. Remember to send a spoon.
- ***Have zip-lock bags handy for sending in things you want to keep separate, like croutons, or roasted nuts, for your child to sprinkle over a meal.
- ***Younger children may enjoy a funny face on their fruit, a fresh edible flower, a smiley face, a note from mum on a post-it, or a photo of their pet. If they are getting some ethnic cuisine for lunch, put in a picture clue of something from that country, so they can try and guess what country it is before they unwrap the food. I used to save Christmas cracker jokes for my daughter’s lunchbox. However, a word of warning, these novelties only work up to a certain age. After that, you’ll be told they’re naff!
- ***There is something hideous about using plastic cutlery, whether you are a child, or an adult, and I always think it’s better to send proper, colourful child-cutlery in a lunchbox. Yes, some of it will go by the wayside, but it still works out cheaper than replacing the plastic stuff every day and is more environmentally sound. And finally, always include a napkin!
Lunchbox Gear Checklist
- Tubs for all possible lunchbox ideas—tiny condiment tubs, small fruit salad tubs, larger pasta salad tubs, rectangular sandwich tubs, tubs with many little compartments for different salads and dips.
- Proper cutlery in bright child-friendly designs
- Kitchen towels/napkins
- Cold drinks bottles suitable for freezing overnight
- Hot drinks flask
- Shallow wide-brimmed flask for hot-pot meals
- Thermos insulator or tea-towel to wrap around it
- Lunchbox with in-built vacuum compartment
- Outer insulated lunchbox bag
- Lollipop sticks, cocktail sticks, skewers, umbrellas
- Cling film, coloured food wrap
- Sandwich bags, zip lock bags
- Sandwich paper wrap, sheets of greaseproof paper
- Fruit containers
- Novelty stickers, jokes, post-it pad for notes from mum etc.
Ultimate Healthy Lunch Box Packing List
- *** Use fresh fruit, vegetables and wholegrains to give your child a nutritional lunch.
- *** Nuts, raisins and grapes are great ideas for a healthy lunchbox.
- *** Never lose an opportunity to add some great power foods to your child’s lunch. Wheatgrass, garlic sprouts and broccoli sprouts are wonderful additions to a sandwich. In fact, any type of sprout is great, chickpea, lentil etc. They will help keep your child healthy and build up their ability to fight off germs.
- *** For quick healthy lunchbox ideas, dress your leftover veggies in vinaigrette. Mix in some canned chickpeas or lentils and use to fill a pitta pocket. Or fill a pitta pocket with leftover rice and some salad ingredients dressed with vinaigrette. Tortilla roll-ups are also easy to put together with refried beans, lettuce and cheese OR guacamole, OR cream cheese and chicken etc.
- *** Never throw away a good leftover. Freeze it and use it in a sandwich.
- ***Don’t forget some ideas for dessert—instead of bought sugary bars, try a scone, muffin, or slice of soda bread with some good quality sugarless jam.
- ***Celery, cucumber and carrot are great dipping vegetables. And cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, salsa, hummus, and pesto, are great dips.
- *** For sandwich lunchbox ideas try: tuna and mayonnaise with curry powder and de-seeded cucumber slices OR cottage cheese with apple and celery OR chicken leftovers with slithers of red pepper and fruit chutney OR ham, cheese, lettuce and mustard.
- *** How about some lunchbox ideas for potatoes? Dress up your leftover potatoes to make a meal. Try bacon, sweet-peas, herbs and vinaigrette OR chicken, sweetcorn and Cajun seasoning OR hard-boiled eggs, asparagus, tarragon, and crème fraiche OR hard-boiled eggs, tuna, pickles and mayonnaise OR hard-boiled eggs, mushrooms, parsley and crème fraiche.
- *** Spread a bagel with cream cheese and sprinkle with a selection of finely chopped raw vegetables.
- *** If you are looking for the novelty effect, put cheese or cubes of fruit on a string by piercing with a skewer. Thread cotton string though and tie into a necklace.
- *** In a sectioned container, send lots of different things for your child to assemble into a meal: wholewheat crackers, bagel slices, shaved cheese, baton vegetables. Or let them build a pizza with pitta, shredded cheese and a tub of tomato sauce.
- *** For great novelty lunchbox ideas,try making kebabs. Almost anything can be put on a kebab. How about pasta shells, cherry tomatoes, cooked ham, olives and red onion? Send with a vinaigrette dip.
- *** Pizza can sustain almost any kind of topping and is nice cold: for a refreshing change, let your children invent their own pizza and help you out by developing their own lunchbox ideas.
- *** Add flavour to your lunchbox ideas by ditching plain old butter and spreading salsa, hummus, avocado mash, mustard, pesto, tomato spread, tapenade, flavoured cream cheese, garlic mayonnaise, pickle relish, chutney, fruit spread or nut butter.
- *** Blend any fruits with some honey and milk/soya milk for delicious smoothies. Use frozen berries when fresh ones aren’t available and always add a banana for texture. Puree fruit in the blender and freeze it for a slushie-dessert the next day.
- *** If you hit the ‘sandwiches are boring’ problem, use lots of different types of bread—-bagels, wraps, croissants, pittas, tortillas, chapatis, naan, or English muffins. And remember, everything that can be put in a sandwich can also be put in a jacket potato, or mixed in through pasta.
- *** Never lose an opportunity to throw a sprinkling of organic flaxseed and linseed over your child’s lunch! They are rich in essential omega-3 oils, great for your child’s brain. Other great sprinklers are toasted nuts and seeds.
- *** Use oatcakes, rice cakes, or organic spelt crackers instead of cream crackers. They are just as delicious and much more nutritious. For wheat-allergy children they are terrific.
- *** If your school has a ban on peanut products or if your child may be intolerant to them, try other nut butters instead, such as almond or cashew butter, which you will find in a health food store. Buy the ones that only contain nuts and no added oil, as these are healthier. Add some sliced apple or banana for a quick sandwich.
- *** Make your own fruit yogurt by adding fruit and honey to natural yogurt. Far healthier than ready-bought yogurts, which are full of sugar and often contain no whole fruit.
- *** Make salads interesting by adding lots of crunch, toasted nuts and seeds, sesame sticks and different dressings.
- ***Make up a Trail Mix and send it in a small tub, or bag. Or add it to yogurt or fruit salad. To make Trail Mix, mix together oats, chopped peanuts, almonds, cashews, pecans, sunflowers seeds, pumpkin seeds. Toast for a few minutes. Then sprinkle with flax, linseed and sesame seed. Add raisins, sultanas, chopped dates and dried apricot. Store in an airtight container once cool.
- ***Make a meat sandwich interesting by transforming it into a hot-dog. Use ham, turkey, beef—-any meat so long as it is high-quality. Put into a hot-dog roll and top with fried onion, pickle, mustard and ketchup. Or send the condiments separately to avoid sogginess. Goes great with leftover fired potatoes sprinkled with chilli powder.
- ***For a breadless sandwich, use cooked potato bread and fill with bacon, or fried egg.
- ***If your child won’t eat a casserole with a spoon, reduce the sauce down and serve it in a wrap! Dollop a spoon of casserole on a quadrant of the wrap and fold it over twice into a triangle.
- ***For a nutritious lunchbox, pack your favourite chilli con carne, or chilli sans carne, into a shallow thermos and send with tortilla chips for dunking. Accompany with guacamole. Or pack a cassserole into a thermos with a crusty bread roll for dunking.
- ***Liquorice is a perfectly acceptable sweet dessert. It is made from molasses, which is the part of the sugar cane left over when the bit that makes the white crystals, is removed. It contains the healthier, unrefined parts of what is, after all, a natural food. If you can find liquorice laces, use them to string together cubes of fruit.
- ***Try pizza quesillada. Spread a tortilla with tomato sauce. Top with grated cheese and any other chopped pizza fillings you like. Place another tortilla on top. Pop it under the grill for a couple of minutes. Cut into triangles.
- ***For delicious jacekt potatoes, don’t forget to scoop out the potato flesh and mix it with your filling. For fillings try: cooked salmon and scallion in a spicy salsa dressing, OR sour cream and chives, OR sliced beef and grated cheese, OR tomatoes and pinenuts with pesto.
- ***A lunch brunch can be very comforting, especially in winter. Try English muffins with a fried egg and slice of bacon, or cooked smoked salmon and drizzled with a little maple syrup.
- ***Fry leftover rice in a pan with a beaten egg, leftover meat and veggies. Season with a little sesame oil and soy sauce. Top with spring onions and serve with rice crackers, or pitta.
- ***For a healthy filler, make up your own nourishing ‘crisps’. Cut up bagels, pitta, naan, or tortillas into thin slices. Drizzle with a little olive or canola oil. Sprinkle on some herbs or spices. Roast on a baking tray until crisp. Send with a salad, or vegetable batons and a dip.
- ***To make plain old cottage cheese delicious, throw in a handful of seedless raisins, or chopped dried apricots. Sprinkle with cinnamon and drizzle with wild honey.
- ***For a mid-morning snack, try toasting some oat flakes and crush them with a rolling pin. Toast slices of bread. Cover in nut butter and cover with the toasted flakes. Or, don’t toast the bread and roll it up like a Swiss roll.
- ***Make use of beautiful primavera vegetables as they come into season, in a pasta salad with broadbeans, French beans, and sweet garden peas (or try mange tout, or sugar snaps, if they appeal to a child).
- ***With a cookie cutter, cut cheese slices into dinosaur and elephant shapes.
- ***Make a rustic sandwich with fresh baguette, brie cheese, and fresh figs. (When using soft, or unpasteurized cheeses, always send an ice-pack, or don’t use if they cannot be kept very cool).
- ***Fill a pitta with mashed avocado and chicken leftovers.
- ***Both quiche and Spanish omelette make good lunches. Throw in any leftover meat or veggies you have to hand. Or make a wafer-thin omelette using a really wide pan and roll it up, Japanese-style. Stick a spring onion and some beansprouts inside for crunch.
- ***For drinks with a bit of Wow! try making blueberry, or raspberry lemonade, the colour of which children love. Puree the fruit, add a little honey, or maple syrup, or fine sugar and some sparkling water. In winter, try hot cidona, sweetened with honey and spiced with cinnamon and ginger. Send in a flask.
- ***Make breadless sandwiches with grilled aubergine slices. Spread with goat’s cheese and spinach, or hummus, and roll them up.
- ***Pick up some delicious baklava at a middle-eastern deli, or make your own version with filo pastry (or puff pastry for a shortcut) almonds and honey. A no-sugar, nutritious dessert.
- ***Cut cheese into baton shapes and serve with veggie batons and dips.
- ***If you are making sweet muffins, make a batch of veggie muffins too. Eliminate the sugar and throw in lots of grated carrot and courgette and use wholemeal flour. Mini-muffins are a lunchbox favourite with children.
- ***Toasted sandwices can be acceptable to children who don’t like normal sandwiches. For smaller children, cut out shapes for eyes, nose and mouth for a funny-face toastie.
- ***Ants-on-a-log is a lunchbox classic. Fill celery sticks with cream cheese, or nut butter. Then stick in the ants (sultanas). Serve with pitta crackers, bread sticks, or sesame sticks.
- ***Cut a cone-shaped hole out of an orange. Then replace it and wrap the orange in clingfilm. Your child can suck the juice out, but make sure they are old enough to watch out for the pips.
- ***For winter sandwiches, use cooked leftover veggies, especially if they are grilled or roasted. Serve in a crusty bread roll.
- ***There are lots of dried fruit products available now. Great for snacks and desserts. Try to buy unsulphurated ones in a health food store.
- ***In terms of fresh fruit, children are not that keen on bananas, apples, or oranges to eat at lunchtime, even though these are the fruits we usually pack in their lunchboxes. But bananas get bruised,apples are boring and oranges are too messy to peel and eat. So, if you are sending a banana, make sure it doesn’t get bruised. If you are sending an apple, try cutting it into quarters, dipping it into orange juice to prevent discolouration and sprinkling it with cinnamon. And use a tasty variety. Most supermarket apples these days are quite tasteless.
- If you are sending an orange, make it a mandarin orange, peel it and separate the segments and tear off the pith. However, if the complaints from your children continue,try a plum or pear, a slice of fresh pineapple, some stoned cherries or fresh dates. Or some kiwi, mango or lychees, if they don’t have to clock up air miles to get to you!
- ***Make salads more interesting by adding lots of crunch, toasted nuts and seeds, sesame sticks and different dressings.
- ***Scour your local deli for unusual artisan cheeses you haven’t tried before. If you introduce new tastes to children when they are very young, it is surprising how adventurous they can be, even with smoked cheeses. Team the cheese with slices of fresh fruit, such as pineapple, pear and apple. Add some honey mustard or a drizzle of honey, a few leaves of baby spinach and a sprinkling of chopped nuts. Use rustic bread and you have a paysan feast!
- ***Use lots of different types of bread for interesting sandwiches and use cookie cutters to make different shapes for sliced-bread sandwiches. Cut the crusts off if your children don’t like them. For variety, in place of regular bread, substitute bagels, wraps, croissants, pittas, tortillas, chapatis, naan, or English muffins.
- ***Instead of sliced bread sandwiches, cut off the crusts, flatten the bread, put on a favourite spread and roll into a Swiss roll. Cut it into bite-sized pieces.
- ***Home-made popcorn, without salt, is a healthy substitute to the shop variety. Popcorn is nutritious and contains fibre. If your children miss the salt, try sprinkling a little mild paprika, or chilli powder, or seaweed seasoning, on it.
As you can see, there really is no limit to wonderful lunchbox ideas, once you start thinking outside the box and allow yourself to include all types of foods.