A recipe for a healthy school lunch box

Jane Holroyd
What should and shouldn't be in your child's school lunch box?
What should and shouldn't be in your child's school lunch box? Photo: Marina Oliphant/Caroline Velik

Does your child's lunch box pass the health test? Chances are, probably not.

What you choose to put into a school lunch box plays a big role in the ideas your child develops around eating. But according to some experts, too many of us are getting the lunch box wrong. 

Dietitian Lisa Renn.
Dietitian Lisa Renn. Photo: Kon Iatrou (supplied)

Accredited practising dietitian Lisa Renn, spokesperson for Dietitians Association of Australia and author of Diet Proof Your Kids, says studies show Australian children get too much – a whopping 41 per cent – of their daily kilojoule intake from discretionary foods (often referred to as snack, treat or "sometimes" foods). 

Renn believes school lunch boxes are partly to blame. 

"It's very easy to throw packaged foods into the school bag, especially if parents are getting kids to prepare their own lunches," says Renn. "It's great to encourage independence and to involve kids in food preparation, but don't be tempted to rely on packets."

Avoid processed and packaged snacks.
Avoid processed and packaged snacks. Photo: Paul Jones

Schools can help encourage healthy choices too. Some great school-led initiatives include healthy canteens, kitchen garden programs and "nude food" policies – whereby families are discouraged from sending kids to school with packaged foods. 

Brisbane-based nutritionist and dietitian Deb Blakley from Kids Dig Food says it's important to remember that when you pack a lunch box (or show your children how to prepare a meal) you are teaching your kids how to eat; what a healthy meal looks like. She says the most common mistake parents make when packing a lunch box is this: "A typical lunch box tends to include too much refined bread, crackers and biscuits and not enough vegetables, fresh fruit and protein."

Blakley shares some tips to help redress the balance:

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Don't save the vegies for dinner
Parents often save vegetables for the evening meal rather than also incorporating them into breakfast, lunch and snacks. The problem here is that kids won't get close to their recommended daily serve of vegetables (see chart below). If the lunch box is a no-go zone for vegies for your kids, offer them at snack time – when kids are hungry you will be surprised what they'll eat.

Don't forget the protein
Protein and fat are really important for satiety (feeling satisfied). This is why low-fat diets are not great for kids says Blakley.

Choose wholegrain products
Choose bread and cereal products that are highest in fibre as these provide longer-lasting energy and make kids feel fuller for longer. Refined foods give kids a quick burst of energy but it doesn't last long.

Don't give up
Popping something new into a lunch box is a great way to give kids the opportunity to explore and try a new food. Research shows that gentle and consistent exposure to lots of different foods is the best way for kids to accept and enjoy a wide variety of foods.

Ensure the contents of the lunch box covers off nutritional requirements. Ensure the contents of the lunch box covers off nutritional requirements. Photo: Jamie Brown


So, what should be in your child's lunch box?

Include one serve from each of the following groups in the lunch box: 

Recommended daily serves for 4-8 year-olds

Vegetables: 4.5 serves
Fruit: 1.5 serves
Grains: 4 serves
Lean meat / protein: 1.5 serves
Discretionary foods: 0-2.5

Note: These recommendations vary slightly for boys and girls. For more specific information see eatforhealth.gov.au
Source: Australian Dietary Guidelines

What does one serve look like?

Vegetables: ½ cup raw or cooked vegetables, or 1 cup leafy greens or ½ medium-size potato
Dairy: 1 cup milk, 40g cheese, 200g yoghurt (or soy equivalents)
Fruit: 1 cup (or handful) is a serve ie. one apple.
Grains: 1 slice of bread, ½ a wrap/flatbread, or ½ medium-sized roll. Or ½ cup cooked pasta, noodles, rice.
Protein: 100g tuna, 65g cooked lean meat, 30g nuts or peanut butter, 80g cooked chicken or turkey, 2 eggs.

Deb Blakley's favourite lunch box stuffers

Give the Vegemite sandwich and Tiny Teddies a break. 

Vegetable frittata slices are a great source of protein (eggs) and you can add in vegetables and/or meat – even dinner leftovers.

Black bean brownies are great for kids who don't eat much protein or fibre.

Nuts and seeds: Snacks made from nuts and seeds such as healthy muesli slices or protein balls pack a big nutritional punch for kids with a small appetite.

Dips: Avocado dip is dead easy. Just mash up avocado and maybe mix with some lemon or lime juice, and perhaps some natural yoghurt. Other dips popular with kids are tzatziki and hummus. For a challenge, try a Mexican layer dip with salsa, avocado, beans and cheese.

Useful links

Australian Government daily recommended serves calculator (based on sex and age)

Kids Dig Food (for recipe ideas) 

Victorian Government lunch box menu planner

After-school snacks (Dietitians Association of Australia)

DAA lunch box ideas

Sample meal plan for 9-11 year-olds (Australian Government)