How to make healthy packed lunches

healthy packed lunches

In a matter of days the kids will be back at school and for some of us that means getting back into a routine of thinking up and preparing healthy packed lunches for them. Sadly, for many children, ‘healthy’ does not come into the equation because recent figures suggest that only 1.1% of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards for school meals*. This is highly worrying because, in my opinion, even some school dinners miss the mark. 

What is wrong with the average packed lunch?

Crisps, chocolate, sugary drinks, cereal bars (very high in sugar), processed snack foods and white bread all feature heavily in a large proportion of packed lunches these days providing children with very little in the way of the essential nutrients required for energy, concentration, growth and overall health. Not only that, but foods such as these are contributing to the increase in childhood obesity and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.

Up until fairly recently my son was having school dinners, but we started him on a trial gluten-free diet so I had to get on the packed lunch train fairly sharpish. Not only did I have conjure up an additional healthy meal for him every single day, but it had the added challenge of being gluten-free (and nut-free due to school policy). To say I was sent into a bit of a tailspin is an understatement. If was happy to send him off with a ham sandwich and a bag of crisps every day, then that would have been fine, but this is me we’re talking about! I had to come up with a formula to make this task less daunting.

Why is lunch an important meal?

Whilst it might seem difficult to think up alternatives to convenience foods, with a little preparation and organisation, you can provide your child with a healthy, balanced lunch which nourishes their growing bodies and supports their active day.

Lunch is such an important meal for schoolchildren. Not only have they had a very busy morning, mentally and physically, but they still have a whole afternoon of work and play ahead of them. It’s so important that they eat a meal at this time of day that is going to replenish them, but also give them the fuel to get through the rest of their school day.

Foods high in sugar and refined carbohydrates such as those mentioned above are devoid of nutrients and provide a quick energy boost, but blood sugar levels drop just as quickly later on resulting in some very drowsy kids come the afternoon. This can’t be much fun for the teachers! So, here are my top tips together with some healthy ideas that I hope will take the headache out of packing your child’s lunches.

Top tips for a healthy packed lunch

1) My absolute number 1 top tip for making healthy packed lunches is MEAL PLANNING! Sit down on a Saturday or a Sunday with a weekly planner and write in every meal for that week. This allows you to plan in leftovers from the previous evening’s supper in their packed lunch – I try and do this as much as possible. Turn some leftover roast chicken from Sunday lunch into a stir-fry with rice and vegetabes or make some fishcakes out of cooked salmon and potatoes. Meal planning also saves you money because you only buy what you need rather than being tempted into 3 for 2 offers, or some fancy-looking ingredients that will gather dust at the back of the cupboard until well beyond the use-by date. (I know this because I am about to move out for renovations and have had to clear out my kitchen cupboards…ahem…preserved lemons anyone?) blue-foogo-thermos

2) Stock up on a good selection of boxes and pots. I like the Sistema range because they are BPA free, have compartments and come in nice colours! I do not, however, put hot food into these as I’m still not convinced that plastic chemicals don’t leach into the food. Instead, I use a Thermos Foogo which is made of stainless steel and keeps the food inside warm until lunchtime. My son calls it his ‘hot pot’! This has been my absolute life-saver for packed lunches because most days I just reheat leftovers from the night before and I know my very active and hungry son is getting a hot, nutritious meal at lunchtime. I love the hot pot!  

3) Make lunch the night before. Any chopping of fruit or veg that needs to be done can be done the night before and kept airtight in a food box. If you’re decanting yoghurt from a large pot into a small container, do this the night before. Save money on sugar-laden fruit-flavoured yoghurts by defrosting frozen fruit into natural yoghurt overnight. Sandwiches might be a little soggy if made in advance but at least have the fillings at the ready. Anything that can be done to save time in the morning is an absolute must. This is coming from someone who hates getting up in the morning and cannot bear to be in a rush (but always is!)

The formula for constructing a healthy packed lunch

And now for what to put in the lunchbox. If you follow this simple formula for making up a healthy packed lunch, then you need never be caught out again. A nutritionally balanced packed lunch needs to consist of some key ‘food groups’ in order to provide your child with a broad range of essential macro and micro nutrients. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Some main meals will contain all these food groups as you’ll see below, in which case they only need some fruit as a pudding. The following table lists these food groups, why they are important, and which foods fall into each category.

Food Group Found in Good for
Complex carbohydrate Wholemeal bread, soda bread, fibre-rich or seeded G/F bread, brown rice, quinoa, vegetables, beans/lentils, brown rice pasta, oats, oatcakes, sweet potatoes Maintaining energy levels for longer, blood sugar balance, fibre for healthy bowels
Protein Chicken, fish, meat, eggs, full fat yoghurt, cheese, seeds, quinoa, beans/lentils, houmous Growth, muscle development, brain function, maintaining energy levels and concentration
Fruit and vegetables All fruit & veg! Easy for lunchboxes are blueberries, banana, grapes, plums, sugar snap peas, carrot sticks, pepper slices, cucumber sticks Vitamin C and antioxidants to support their immune systems, healthy bowels
Fats – saturated & unsaturated are both important Oily fish, seeds, cheese, full fat yoghurt, eggs, meat, butter Brain function and concentration, calcium for bones and teeth, vitamin D for bones/immunity/mood

Some ideas for healthy packed lunches

Here are a few ideas for some packed lunches which fit the above formula, and there’s only one sandwich! I took these pictures in the summer so the foods are more seasonal. In the winter I use the ‘hot pot’ a lot more. Underneath you’ll find some more examples of meals and some links to recipes that you can refer to.

healthy packed lunch 2

 

C. Carbs

Protein F & V

Fats

Brown rice pasta & bolognese with parmesan

Blueberries & apple    

 

     

 

healthy packed lunch

 

C. Carbs Protein F & V

Fats

Chicken drumsticks  

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Pea pods & cucumber

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(peas)

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Fresh berries    

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9 Bar (seeds & carob)  

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healthy packed lunch 3

 

C. Carbs

Protein F & V

Fats

Tinned red salmon, cucumber & mayo sandwich (high fibre G/F bread)

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Fresh peas and celery  

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Chopped Apricot    

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healthy packed lunch 4

 

C. Carbs

Protein F & V

Fats

G/F organic sausages  

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Sugar snap peas, cucumber, red pepper

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Fresh blueberries    

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Home-made flapjack

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 Other lunchbox ideas

I do a lot of leftovers from the night before and reheat the in the morning for the hot pot.

  • Casserole with chicken or meat and lots of vegetables with potatoes or rice – make a large one in the slow cooker. For example this lamb casserole.
  • Stir fried chicken and vegetables with brown rice or rice noodles. Use leftover roast chicken
  • Salmon and potato fishcakes (warmed in the oven in the morning), made from cooked salmon and mashed sweet potatoes – I use rice flour to fry them in.
  • Meatballs with brown rice or pasta

Try out this Gluten free coconut bread which is very filling.

Wholemeal or gluten free muffins are a great way of getting protein, fat and carbohydrate in one item. Savoury muffins are another option.

Granola can but made into flapjacks or just placed in a pot in large chunks.

These Lemon and Pecan cookies are simply delicious. If your school is nut-free you can leave out the pecans and use sunflower or pumpkin seed butter instead of cashew butter.

Try these Raw Coconut Truffles are wonderful as a sweet and healthy treat. Again, you can use just seeds instead of nuts.

Kale chips are a good alternative to crisps for a bit of a crunch!

Make your own yoghurt and frozen fruit smoothies.

Ready-made foods that I often include Innocent fruit tubes, Yeo Valley yoghurt squeezies, Nairns Gluten Free Biscuit Breaks, oatcakes, Corn Thins, 

I hope this has given you some ideas and inspiration to tackle the term ahead with confidence that you can give your child a varied, balanced and nutritionally-sound packed lunch every day of the week!

Now, I’m off to plan my week!

 

*Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health

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