Fast, simple and healthy lunch box ideas for kids. Plus my top tips for how to keep your child’s lunch box healthy, what to pack and how to choose a lunch box.
It's almost time to go back to school. This year I'll be making two packed lunches every day - one for my seven-year-old daughter and one for my nine-year-old son.
Our four-year-old will be getting a free school meal at lunch time. However, he'll still be getting plenty of packed lunches on school trips and on weekend days out.
If you're looking for healthy lunch box ideas then read on. I've got ideas, tips and recipes galore below.
Healthy lunch box tips
Not got much time? Here are my top tips for how to make a healthy lunchbox for your child
- Include lots of fruits and vegetables. Make them more exciting by putting fruit on a plastic skewer to make mini kebabs or using a crinkle cutter to cut vegetables into fun shapes.
- Chop in advance. If you run out of time in the morning to chop vegetables do it on a Sunday night. As long as you put them in a plastic tub with a lid, chopped vegetables will last well for a few days.
- Add a dip. If you have time to make your own dips (eg hummus) you can include a portion of veg in them eg carrot hummus or beetroot dip. If you teach your child how to use vegetable sticks to scoop up the dip that’s a couple of portions of vegetables eaten straight away.
- Try new things. Include some of your child’s favourite foods, things you’ll know they will eat and enjoy. However, I also like to include something new, or something they’ve previously rejected, so if they wish they can try it without the pressure of being at home.
- Batch cook. If you have a freezer cook two or three different things eg muffins, pizza swirls or flapjacks and freeze them once cooled. Having a good freezer stash makes lunch box preparation so much easier.
- Use leftovers. You don’t have to make something new for lunch. Save a little of your dinner the night before. Many kids are happy to eat things like pasta cold the next day. Alternatively you could invest in a small kid-sized Thermos flask,* which will keep things warm or find out if there are heating facilities at your school, pre-school or other destination.
- Divide up the lunch box. You can buy special bento lunchboxes or you could use tubs or cake cases. This stops the elements from mixing together, which can be off putting to kids.
- Shop bought options. It’s not always realistic to make everything from scratch. If you need to buy things to fill your child’s lunch box look for healthier options that contain less salt and sugar. Don’t forget to include lots of vegetables and fruit as well!
Include lots of veg
My number one tip for how to pack a healthy lunch box for school is to include lots of vegetables.
These can be:
- chopped up as crudités
- included in a salad
- added to sandwiches
- used in sauces
- included in pinwheels, muffins or pancakes.
How you serve them up is up to you but make sure they're there! You'll find some lunch box recipe ideas towards the end of this post - many of them include vegetables.
Apart from vegetables include the following:
As well as vegetables you should include some fruit, a starchy savoury item and maybe some homemade baked goods and snacks in your child's lunch.
Making these items yourself will mean you know exactly how much sugar or salt is in their lunch. I talk more below about what to look out for when buying shop bought lunch box fillers.
A well balanced lunch box should include:
- lots of vegetables eg salad, crudités
- something starchy eg bread, potatoes, pasta or rice.
- a portion of fruit
- some protein - vegetarian proteins include Quorn, eggs, tofu, lentils, quinoa beans or cheese.
You should never include the following foods in your child’s lunch box:
- fizzy drinks
- nuts - if your school is nut free.
Many schools also have a nut free policy to protect children with allergies. If in doubt, ask your school for their lunch box policy.
Other foods that are best avoided in lunch boxes include:
- crisps (every day). Good alternatives include unsalted popcorn (for older children as they can be a choking hazard for little ones), rice cakes, oat cakes or crackers
- chocolate bars
- shop bought cakes - try some of my healthier baked goodies for low-sugar lunchbox fillers
- cereal bars every day as they're often high in sugar (malt loaf is a good alternative).
I know how hard it is to make something homemade every single day for lunch.
That’s why I like to batch cook and fill my freezer with lunch box fillers.
This means that I don’t have to make anything new during the week.
If you do need to use shop bought items - which I often do too - then check the sugar content. For example, buying cereal bars from the baby and toddler aisle rather than the snacks aisle in the supermarket is often a healthier choice.
Additionally some yoghurts aimed at children are very high in sugar too so try to get sugar free versions or buy a pot of plain yoghurt and fill a pot with it yourself. You could mix it with fruit eg raspberries to make it more interesting.
If you can, make your own
The main problem with buying healthier lunch box fillers is that they are often more expensive than the unhealthy versions. So if you can, make your own. It'll save you money, be better for your children and use less packaging.
I didn’t realise for ages that my son wasn’t having a drink with his lunch. I’d just assumed that he would have access to a cup of water at lunch time but it turns out I was wrong.
I'm pretty sure a lot of his after-school grumpiness was caused by dehydration!
Now I add a bottle of water to his lunch bag every day.
Such an easy thing to do.
Because he doesn’t eat much fruit I also sometimes include a smoothie. If you want to make your own these pouches by Nom Nom Kids* are reusable.
It can be really challenging when your child refuses to eat what is in his or her lunch box.
And it's SO tempting just to put in what you know they'll eat.
However, there's a real danger with picky eaters that if they eat the same thing every day eventually they'll get sick of it. This is known as food jagging - this post by Simone Emery explains food jagging well.
Lunch boxes are a great opportunity to try something new
I have found lunch boxes are a good opportunity to expose my picky eater to new foods away from the pressure of me watching him.
New foods often come home untouched - but not always.
And those occasions when he tries something new and likes it are worth their weight in gold.
A good approach to take when preparing a lunch box for a picky eater is to draw up a list of foods that they already like. See if you can make small changes to their preferred foods.
For example if your child likes cheese sandwiches what happens if you add some salad leaves? Could you use a cookie cutter to change the shape of the sandwich?
Or if carrots are popular can you serve them as crudités with a homemade dip?
It might also help to get your child involved in preparing or planning their lunches for the week.
It's worth bearing in mind that if there’s too much in the lunch box it can be overwhelming. So if you’re trying something new keep it to a small portion.
NB: If your child doesn’t like sandwiches consider investing in a Thermos or similar so they can have a hot lunch. Leftovers often work well for us.
A good quality lunch box should last you more than one school year.
However, these don't come cheap so you need to make sure that the one you buy is the best choice for you.
Think about the kinds of foods you are most likely to include.
If you buy a bento-style lunch box that is full of small compartments, yet your child doesn’t eat much fruit or veg, you may find it difficult to fill every day.
Perhaps a few smaller boxes would be better for your child? In this case you can buy a lunch bag to keep them in. You don’t need to spend a lot of money - you can re-use Tupperware, small plastic tubs and takeaway boxes.
We have a few different lunch boxes.
- Yumbox Classic* - while I love the way this looks I've found that I don’t use this particular lunch box that often. When we do use this one it’s for my youngest, who eats the most variety of fruit and veg.
- Yumbox Panino* - this gets much more use. It's perfect for the four year old but I’ve found that it’s now too small for my nine year old, who eats a lot these days.
- Goodbyn - my two older children have Goodbyn lunch boxes, which are just the right size for them. These lunch boxes have three separate sections.
Another reason that I love using this style of lunch box is that it reduces the amount of packaging I need. Where in the past I would have used cling film or tin foil to cover sandwiches, rolls, muffins and other items, now I don’t need any packaging at all.
As well as the lunch boxes I’ve mentioned above we have two child’s Thermos flasks* which are brilliant for sending in leftovers. My kids love leftover pasta, noodles and curry in theirs. Soup is also a good option.
A bento box is a Japanese-style lunch box with several different compartments. It usually holds a single meal. In Japan this would typically include rice or noodles, vegetables and meat or fish.
Bento boxes are becoming much more common in other parts of the world with the Yumbox being one of the most famous. If you head to instagram and look at #bentobox you will see just under 1 million photos of bento boxes!
Don’t let that overwhelm you though.
Bento boxes are a great way to encourage you to keep putting new things in your child’s lunch.
If you don’t want to invest in a new lunch box at the moment then you can use small boxes or Tupperware pots instead.
I don't end up making sandwiches that often for my kids' packed lunches as they tend to prefer other things (like some of the items in the list below).
However, sometimes there's nothing else in the house so I do end up making sandwiches. Using wraps, rolls and bagels as well as sliced bread helps to keep things interesting.
Here are some vegetarian sandwich filler ideas:
- Quorn vegetarian chicken or ham slices (vegan version also available)
- falafel, hummus and salad
- cream cheese and cucumber
- cheese and lettuce
- grated cheese and carrot mixed
- egg salad
- vegan "tuna" mayo
- sunflower butter
- peanut butter and banana (if nuts are allowed at your school)
- healthy chia jam.
What are your favourite sandwich fillings? Let me know in the comments!
Here are some quick ideas for healthy lunchbox fillers - you'll find links to recipes below.
Here are some of my favourite recipes to make for my children’s lunchboxes. Many of these recipes can be frozen as well.
Savoury lunchbox fillers
- pizza pinwheels
- baked cauliflower falafel wraps
- tortilla pinwheels
- pesto puff pastry twists
- rainbow wraps
- mini frittatas
- carrot, apple and sage sausage rolls
- sweet potato, spinach and ricotta pancakes
- butternut squash and cheese oatcakes
- cheese and baked bean pies
- sweetcorn empanadas
- savoury sweet potato muffins
- beetroot dip
- spinach pesto palmiers
- carrot hummus
- homemade hummus
- pizza crackers
- kids pasta salad
Healthy sweet treats for lunchboxes
- no bake cereal bars
- chocolate and kale muffins
- nut free granola
- coconut energy balls
- sweet potato cookies
- carrot cake energy balls
- banana malt loaf
- sweet potato brownies
- apple flapjacks
- baked pumpkin doughnuts
- apple cinnamon cookies
- healthy carrot and banana muffins
- healthy flapjacks
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