Healthy school lunch box 101

Healthy School Lunch box 101.

The New school year is upon us again and that means it is lunch box time again. A healthy school lunch box is just as important as a good school or good teacher. Children need their lunch and snack to provide sufficient calories and nutrients to get them through the day, which for some is 6 to 8 hours or more including travel time. Children are at school to learn; they need to concentrate and focus all day, and maybe do some Phys Ed as well. Food and energy are crucial in the learning matrix. It’s not just a lunch either, depending on what they had for breakfast a good and maybe large morning snack is important too.

Parents and caregivers are busy so I don’t believe in making lunch complicated, just follow the basics and pack food that travels well, is easy to eat (not all schools have great eating areas and often children sit on the floor to eat) and most importantly what you know your children likes and will eat. Here’s the low down on what and how much needs to go in the bag to make sure the lunch and snack is nutritious and healthy.

All the key macro nutrients need to be in there – protein, carbohydrates and fat. Also dairy or a dairy alternative, some hydration in the form of water, juice or milk and fruit or vegetables to provide some fiber and essential micro nutrients.

Pack one or more item from each of the following for the lunch component.

Protein from meat and meat alternatives like tofu, or fish, cheese and nuts.  Protein is not only the building block for muscles and tissues but also affects mood and concentration.  It also increases the satisfying affect of a meal. Portion size is 1 oz of cheese, 2oz of meat or 12-15 nuts and number of portions you pack depends on the age. Pack in a roll or sandwich for super easy option or with rice or pasta for a meal style option. One of the easiest options is just add a portion of cold cooked chicken along with a roll or crackers. Most Protein is eaten with carbohydrate so it makes it easy to get the next food group in.

Carbohydrate choices include bread, wraps, rice, pasta, muffins, crackers, pretzels and cereals. Carbohydrate is truly “brain fuel” and so it should go without saying that it needs to be in the lunch box in the right amount. The older the child the greater the amount required. One roll or slice for younger children and 2-3 for older students. Choosing higher fiber, whole grain carbohydrates will keep them feeling full for longer as the sugar in the food gets released more slowly the brain is fuels at a steady pace, making the body feel satisfied for longer. Refined carbohydrates eaten by themselves without fiber, protein or some fat mixed in cause a spike in blood sugar levels which should be avoided (candy for example).

Fruits and vegetables – The more the better with this group as it is essential for fiber and essential vitamins supply during the day to help their body function well. Let’s not also forget the useful knock on effect of helping keep out the junk element out by replacing it! Fruit is great and usually comes in the right portion size – think bananas, apples or mandarins. If your kids do not like to peel apples or mandarins at school– apple sauce or small snack cups of fruit like peaches, mandarins or pineapples work well too. On the vegetable side packing a handful of carrots or baby cucumber and pepper sticks is a good easy option. Place them in a container though, as squished vegetables loose their appeal and usually get left. Salad can work well and if your children doesn’t mind eating with a fork at school and it is easy to add the protein to. Most children do not get recommended portions of fruit and vegetables so packing 2-3 for school lunch is a necessity. Think one at snack and 1 or more for lunch.

Dairy – milk based products or their alternatives – for instance milk, yogurt, cheeses or soy beverage. Many parents miss this golden opportunity to pack a low fat, high protein and calcium loaded option such as flavored low fat milk or a filling yogurt. Just watch the flavored, bottle milk shake type milks as they can be very high in sugar, or high fructose corn syrup. Keep dairy cold with an ice pack.

Fat – Kids still need some for feeling full and providing energy but keep snacks loaded with saturated fats (chips, chocolate bars, snack bars) to a minimum and replace them with food that contains healthy fats- nut butters, hummus, avocado dips or food that does double duty, like cheese which contains fat but also delivers protein and calcium. All much better for their teeth than sweetened chewy granola bars!

Water – don’t forget fluids- study after study shows that dehydration = poor performance in kids and a sizable number of kids unfortunately start the day dehydrated. Packing water or real juice in a reusable container is economical for you and better for the environment. If you have packed milk as well then that should be good for the average day. However, on hot days or Phsy Ed days remind your children to drink at the fountains or pack more water.

Snack ideas.

Snack really needs to follow the same rules. I always suggest adding a good whole grain fruit muffin, muesli bar or fruit along with some dairy (or dairy alternative) for the snack. This way they get the carbohydrate and protein to keep them going until lunch when they can refuel again.

For more info on the food groups check out Canada’s Food guide at

Packing tips.

Have a variety of sized containers – with lids! If you don’t already have some, invest in sandwich size boxes, a few snack size containers about 20cm square and then even smaller ones for smaller fruit or vegetable containers – think chunks of cucumber, pepper slices, carrot sticks. Get some reusable juice boxes. I personally wrap most things in wax paper before I put them in the boxes. It holds the sandwich together better, stops the sandwich tasting of plastic and keeps sloppy fillings from smearing the whole container.  For me stress free packing means containers, containers and more containers!

Pack ahead? Some parents swear by making the lunchboxes the night before and then put them in the fridge. You can do this but I am not a fan of putting the whole lunch bag in the fridge, just put the containers in the fridge and leave the lunch box itself in the cupboard – it really isn’t wise putting that in the fridge- you don’t know where it’s been and your fridge is a clean “food prep” space.

Pack the snacks on top so the children reach it first without having to move all the food around

A few lunch box rules

Don’t pack food your children do not like just because it is healthy. It is tempting to pack the food that you know little Johnny should be eating but the rule here is – if they don’t eat it at home they won’t eat it at school either!  I studied school lunches when undertaking my Masters thesis and found out from day one of the study, that what goes to school and what gets eaten are not the same. Younger children just throw out what they do not like and older children chuck it out and go and buy junk food. So, try new foods at home first, including different types of bread, otherwise your child might be in for a very hungry afternoon!

No Pop or Soft drinks –  period, no arguments. 100%  water, milk or real juice only. Coke and fizzy drinks weaken their teeth and provide on average about 10 teaspoons of sugar and no other nutrients per can or bottle. Particularly relevant to teenage girls soft drinks also displace the calcium containing drinks like milk which they need to be consuming to get their bones to optimal strength – this point also applies to all caffeine containing drinks, including of course coffee. Do your teenage children a really big favor and get them off pop, sodas and soft drinks.

Ice pack required, if you put anything in the lunch box which came out of the fridge then you need an ice pack – even in winter. Lunch boxes warm up quickly in classrooms and germs start to multiple fast over 4 degrees.

Old Mother Hubbard moments

Most mums, me included, have at some point gone to make lunch and realised there is not enough to put in the sandwiches or to add for snacks. So for those days make sure there is a plan B, like a take away pick up en route to school. Keep this to a minimum by always having at least some cans of tuna or jars of peanut butter.

Do not worry too much about creating a different lunch every day for a month. Just vary the fruits and vegetables with the seasons and make the muffins, cakes or cookies with different flavors.  Need help seeing what this all looks like in meal plan or real life? Download the following 2 week lunch menu plan and grocery list and you are all set.

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