Healthy lunches for… kids
What is a child-sized portion, what are their recommended Reference Intakes (RI) and how can you encourage kids to enjoy a healthy lunchbox? Find out here…
With more than half of children taking a packed lunch to school – that’s a staggering five billion lunches a year – not to mention the many office and outdoor workers who rely on them, it’s clear what a vital contribution lunchboxes make. That said, thinking up inspiring ideas can be a challenge. It's tempting to fall into the trap of using packaged, ready-made options. Although these seem like the easy answer, they tend to be high in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Keep choices varied, fresh and tasty, high in protein, veg, fruit and fibre, but low in fat, salt and sugar. Lunch is an important point in the school day and should provide at least a third of your child’s daily requirements – without it youngsters struggle to concentrate in the afternoon. Pack plenty of sustaining, nutritious options to make the school day a productive one.
Coping with a selective eater
Involve your child in planning and preparing their lunchbox – kids are more likely to try foods that they’ve been involved in selecting and making.
Children are happier choosing from a small range of foods. If your child seems to pick just one or two favoured things every day, this is not unusual – gradually introduce more options but be prepared to be patient.
If they refuse wholegrains, like wholemeal bread, don’t worry – some small children find fibrous foods too filling and they may even upset their small stomachs. Instead, supply fibre by opting for beans and pulses puréed into a creamy dip or add to salads or sandwich fillings. Introduce brown versions of rice, pasta and bread when your child is a little older.
Talk with other parents and use their child’s healthy appetite as an example for yours to follow.
Don’t use food as a reward – this reinforces the idea that sugary, fatty foods are better options than healthy whole fruit or dairy products.
How much does my child need?
The easiest way to check your child is eating the right amount and achieving a balanced, healthy diet is to compare the nutrition information for recipes and food labels to the Reference Intake (RI). You’ll see this term being used on food packaging in place of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). Many manufacturers show these figures to help you make sense of the information on the label and to help you see how much a food is contributing to your child’s daily diet. RIs are a guide to the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, sugar and salt an adult or child may have, but remember, we all vary in size and activity levels so these figures are only a benchmark. Be aware that the figures for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum amounts.
What and how much to include for little ones (5-10 years)
• Ideal options include water or milk (100-175ml).
Dairy (include a lunchtime portion every day):
• Yogurt/fromage frais, child-sized pots vary from 50-100g.
• Hard cheese like cheddar, approximately 15g-20g.
• Soft cheese, approximately 20-25g.
• Glass of milk, approximately 150-175ml.
• Calcium is essential for bone-building. Good sources are milk, cheese, yogurt and fromage frais, as well as green leafy veg and canned fish (with bones), like salmon and sardines.
- Protein (include a lunchtime portion in addition to dairy every day):
• Protein is important for helping your child to grow. It will also keep them feeling fuller for longer. Good choices include skinless chicken and other lean meats, oily fish, eggs, as well as beans and pulses such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas for vegetarians. Give your child the amount they can fit in the palm of their hand.
- Fruit Vegetables:
• At lunch include at least one portion of fruit and one of veg or salad. A portion is the amount your child can fit in the palm of their hand – typically one small apple or banana, 4-6 carrot sticks or 3-4 cherry tomatoes. Fresh, frozen, dried, canned or you can use a juice – they all count. But remember, to reduce the risk of tooth decay, juice and dried fruit is best eaten as part of a meal and not as a between-meal snack. Limit juice and smoothies to a combined total of 150ml per day and avoid drinks which say "juice drink" on the label because these are unlikely to contribute to your child's five-a-day.
- Starchy carbs:
• Such as bread, noodles, pasta, rice or potatoes. These are important for energy and should make up a third of their lunchbox – opt for wholegrain versions or, for sandwiches, try one of the high-fibre ‘white’ breads.
Buy healthier – what to check on the label
When you do buy ready-packaged options, read the label – this is key to making good choices.
Here’s the information you need at your fingertips when buying packaged food:
|What's a lot||What's a little|
|Fat||More than 17.5g||3g or less|
|Saturates||More than 5g||1.5g or less|
|Sugar||More than 22.5g||5g or less|
|Salt||More than 1.5g||0.3g or less|
Here's the information you need at your fingertips when buying drinks:
|What's a lot||What's a little|
|Fat||More than 8.75g||1.5g or less|
|Saturates||More than 2.5g||0.75g or less|
|Sugar||More than 11.25g||2.5g or less|
|Salt||More than 0.75g||0.3g or less|
Choosing a healthy drink can be difficult especially when so many of them are high in sugar. For more information check out Action on Sugar.
Ideas to get kids to eat up!
- Make fruit more exciting with a fruit slaw. Cut apple, firm mango, peaches and plums into fine matchsticks, add a few blueberries and toss together with a little lime juice. Serve in tubs.
- Swap the tuna mayonnaise in their sandwiches for tinned mackerel or salmon mixed with mayonnaise – these will provide a higher amount of essential omega-3 fatty acids.
- Freeze berries, banana slices or grapes before packing into containers – they will defrost by lunchtime but keep
the lunchbox cool.
- Instead of a sandwich, give them
a little tub of hummus with blanched broccoli, raw carrot, red pepper or cucumber sticks for dipping.
- Draw a face, or write (perhaps your
child’s name) onto a boiled egg or a banana skin.
Mango & banana smoothie
Lemon & coriander hummus
Tortellini with pesto & broccoli
More lunchbox recipes
Find more recipes in our family & kids collections
Now find healthy lunch ideas for teenagers and adults.