Healthy packed lunches
In this article, you will find information for consumers who are interested in knowing about healthy packed lunches for children.
Before reading it may be worth considering whether your child could have a school meal. Meals served in schools in the UK (with the exception of some academies) have to comply with regulatory standards for the foods provided and it is often easier to get the essential nutrients children need into a cooked meal than into a packed lunch. However, if you would prefer to provide a packed lunch, this article can guide you in making it healthy and tasty.
Lunch is an important meal for children to provide energy and nutrients to keep them going throughout the afternoon. A packed lunch made at home can be a healthy and delicious choice and gives you control over the foods and ingredients included.
The key to a healthy packed lunch is variety and getting the right balance of foods to provide children with all of the nutrients they need to stay healthy.
What makes a healthy, balanced packed lunch for children?
There are currently no regulations regarding the types of foods that can be included in school packed lunches, although many schools have policies in place, so it’s a good idea to familiarise yourself with your child’s school packed lunch policy as some food items may be restricted.
Below are some guidelines on how to put together a healthy, balanced packed lunch – these follow the principles of the UK healthy eating model, the Eatwell Guide. Find out more about the Eatwell Guide on our page on a healthy, balanced diet.
A school packed lunch should:
Be based on starchy foods
- This can include rice, pasta, bread, couscous, wraps, pitta, potatoes and chapatti and where possible try to choose wholegrain varieties like wholemeal bread and leave skins on potatoes.
Include plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Include 1-2 portions in your child’s lunch box and try to vary these throughout the week.
- You could add sliced vegetables into a pasta dish or sandwich.
- Supermarkets often have packs of chopped fresh fruits or individual packs of dried fruits. Keep some of these in the cupboard for those days when you don’t have much time to prepare.
|Top tip: Make your own individual bags of dried fruit - place a small handful of mixed dried fruits, into food bags or sealed containers to store in the cupboard, this will also keep the costs down!|
Include a portion of beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat, a dairy food and/or a non-dairy source of protein
- Use beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other sources of protein as sandwich fillings or in a pasta or rice salad.
- If you’re not including a dairy food in the main lunch item (for example in a salad or sandwich), add in a yogurt or some cheese such as a cheddar stick or cheese string to the lunch box.
- If you’re including a dairy alternative, such as a soya yogurt or milk, choose varieties which are unsweetened and fortified with calcium.
Include a drink
- Healthy options include water, semi-skimmed or 1% milk
- You could also give your child fruit juice or a smoothie – but remember, fruit juice and smoothies should be limited to a combined total of 150ml a day. You could always dilute fruit juice with still or sparkling water.
|Top tip: Schools may not have fridge space available for children’s packed lunches, so to keep your child's packed lunch cool, freeze a drink to act as a cool pack and it will melt back in time for lunch!|
Packed lunch ideas
Below are some tasty ideas of what you could include in your child’s packed lunch.
A sandwich, bagel, wrap, chapati or pitta
- Salmon pâté with salad leaves, chopped tomato and cucumber - to make the pâté mix a can of salmon with two tablespoons of low-fat Greek style yogurt and two teaspoons of lemon juice.
- Falafel, grated carrot, lettuce leaves, reduced fat hummus or tzatziki
- Leftover spiced chicken, red onion, spinach and low-fat raita
|Top tip: ‘mix and match’ sandwiches – If you have a few mouths to feed, you could make a few different flavours, divide them into two or three and put one of each flavour in each lunchbox|
A pasta salad
These recipes could also work with rice or couscous or quinoa.
- Canned tuna, canned mixed beans, grated carrot
- Leftover roasted Mediterranean vegetables topped with cottage or soft cheese
|Top tip: If you’re making pasta for dinner, cook a little extra and keep it aside for lunchboxes|
Homemade mini pizza
These are really simple and delicious and you can get children involved too.
To make the mini pizza: Spread some tomato purée and fresh or dried herbs onto a pitta bread and top with vegetables such as onion, sweetcorn, peppers, courgettes, spinach or rocket, some cooked chicken and some grated cheese or slices of mozzarella. Grill until the cheese is melted. Cool and place in the lunchbox in the fridge for the next day.
Frittatas are a great lunchbox item that all of the family can enjoy. You can add any vegetables, beans, pulses, meats and cheese that you like and it is a great way to use up any leftovers. You could try:
- sweet potato, chickpea and spinach
- pea, mint and courgette
- canned salmon, rocket and mozzarella
Don’t forget to also include in the packed lunch…
- a drink
- a dairy food (if not already included in the main meal)
- an extra fruit or vegetable
Snacks and healthier treats
Although some cakes and savoury snacks may be allowed by your child’s school policy, these should be included less often and it is a good idea to select healthier options where possible. Below are some ideas for healthier break-time snacks.
- Whole or sliced fruit
- Vegetable sticks like celery, carrot, pepper and cucumber. Some vegetables are naturally baton-shaped which can save you time preparing, for example sugar snap peas and baby corn.
- Bag of plain popcorn
- Unsalted nuts (check your child’s schools policy on nuts first as some schools do not allow nuts to be brought in)
- Rice or corn cakes
Avoid giving your children dried fruit as a break time snack as they are high in sugar and can be harmful to their teeth, instead only offer it at meal times.
Having a healthy lunch does not mean not allowing any treats.
Here are some ideas that the kids may like (these can also be enjoyed by adults too!). You could even get children involved in baking these yourselves. It’s a good idea to check with your child’s school policy that these items are allowed.
- Banana bread
- Malt loaf
- Plain, fruit or cheese and chive scones
- Rice pudding
Last reviewed December 2016. Revised October 2022.
For more information on the sources used in this text, please contact us.
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Please note that advice provided on our website about nutrition and health is general in nature. We do not provide any personal advice on prevention, treatment and management for patients or their family members.