Packing a healthy lunch box for your kids can be more confusing than Twitter or folding a fitted sheet. But it's important — children consume about one third of their food at school. Lunch boxes needn't be complicated. Just follow a few dietary principles.
1. Start with grains
Whole grains and cereals are an excellent source of carbohydrates, which fuel your child's body and brain. They're also a top source of fibre, which is linked to a lower risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and bowel cancer.
Every kid needs 4 serves of wholegrain cereals per day. Providing they're getting 1 serve for breakfast and 1 serve at dinner, 2 serves of grains in their lunch box should be enough. Each of the items below represents 1 serve:
- 1 slice of wholegrain or wholemeal bread
- ½ medium wholegrain bread roll or flatbread
- ½ cup of cooked brown rice, pasta or quinoa
2. Add lean protein
Lean meat, fish, chicken, eggs and plant-based protein such as beans, tofu and nuts give your child the iron, zinc, vitamin B12, essential fatty acids and protein needed for growth and brain and muscle development.
Kids aged up to 8 years need 1½ serves of protein daily; from about 9 years old they need 2½ serves per day. Nuts are prohibited in many Australian schools, so try incorporating some of these nut-free protein sources into your child's lunch box (each item below represents 1 serve):
- 1 small can of tuna
- 2 hard-boiled eggs
- 80g chicken
- 1 cup cooked or canned chick peas
3. Throw in some veggies
Because they provide energy, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fibre and water, vegetables help to protect your child from getting sick. With the exception of avocados, veggies are also usually low in fat. (Avocados are full of 'healthy' monounsaturated fats though, so they’re still good for your kids to eat.)
School kids aged 4 to 8 need 4½ serves of vegetables daily, which increases to 5 serves from age 9. Add some of these veggies to your child's lunch box (each item represents 1 serve):
- 1 tomato
- ½ cup sweet corn
- ½ cup vegetable sticks (e.g. carrot, snow peas, capsicum)
- 1 cup raw salad vegetables
4. Pop in some fruit
Make that whole fruit. Most Australians only consume about half the recommended serve of fruit, and many people drink too much fruit juice. Fruit juices are high in energy (kilojoules), low in fibre and can damage teeth. Encourage your child to drink water.
Pieces of whole fruit, however, are chock-full of vitamins, minerals, fibre and phytochemicals (disease-fighting compounds that give fruits and vegetables their bright colours).
School kids aged 4 to 8 should have 1½ serves of whole fruit daily; children aged 9 and over can have 2 serves. Including 1 or 2 of these should add some healthy sweetness to your child's lunch. Each item is 1 serve:
- 1 medium apple, banana, orange or pear
- 2 small apricots, kiwi fruits or plums
- 1 cup diced or canned fruit (with no added sugar)
5. Don't forget the dairy
Most children should have some calcium-rich dairy (e.g. milk, cheese, yoghurt) every day to ensure they build strong bones and teeth. Milk also provides protein and vitamins such as vitamin B12. It's recommended that kids aged 2 and over consume mostly reduced-fat dairy.
If your child can't digest dairy, they can also get calcium from almonds, firm tofu, sardines, pink salmon and soy milk fortified with calcium.(Note, some nut or oat milks have added calcium, but they lack vitamin B12 and sufficient protein, so always check with your GP or dietitian before using them.)
Boys aged 4-8 should have 2 serves of dairy or dairy alternatives per day; for boys aged 9-11, it's 2½; boys aged 12 and over should have 3½ serves of dairy.
Girls aged 4-8 should have 1½ serves of dairy or dairy alternatives per day; for girls aged 9-11, it's 3; girls aged 12 and over should have 3½ serves of dairy.
Combine any of these options to get your child's daily dose of calcium (each item is 1 serve):
- 1 cup low-fat milk
- 2 slices or 4 cubes of hard, reduced-fat cheese
- 200g yoghurt
- ½ cup ricotta
- 100g firm tofu
Sample lunch box plan
Assuming you have a 6-year-old child, this sample lunch box should fulfil all their nutritional needs for the school day, ensure they don't still feel hungry, and allow them to concentrate, learn and play like a boss. For older children, increase the servings accordingly.
½ cup veggie sticks (carrot, snow peas, capsicum) and 1 small plum
1 banana and 4 cubes of hard, reduced-fat cheese
Wholegrain sandwich (2 slices) with tuna, egg, tomato and salad leaves, and 1 small tub of yoghurt