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How to Build a Balanced Lunch Box

School lunches can be a minefield. Besides trying to find the time every morning to get them done, you’re also trying to juggle the school or care center’s dietary restrictions with giving your child a healthy option that they will ACTUALLY eat (and not throw in the bin).

As Registered Nutritionist, Kate Freeman, discusses in her article A Healthy Day of Food for Kids, a big part of raising healthy kids is to create a healthy environment, and the daily lunchbox is a perfect example. If you, as a parent, can provide lots of healthy options to eat throughout the day, your child can’t make a poor choice.

1. Focus on the key food groups

Creating balance in a lunch box doesn’t have to be complicated. It can often just be a matter of picking something from each of the main food groups and bringing them together.

Fruit

  • Apple
  • Mandarins
  • Banana
  • Chopped orange
  • Fruit salad
  • Berries
  • Tinned pineapple
  • Grapes
  • Sliced watermelon or rock melon

 

Vegetables

  • Carrot sticks
  • Snow peas
  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Baby cucumbers
  • Lettuce or baby spinach on sandwiches
  • Salsa of chopped tomato and red or spring onion
  • Frozen peas (thawed through the day)
  • Tinned corn
  • Popped corn

 

Whole Grains and Legumes

  • Whole meal or multigrain bread
  • Grainy crackers
  • Rice cakes or corn thins
  • Roasted chickpeas or broad beans
  • Tinned baked beans
  • High fibre pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Oats
  • Homemade muesli

 

Meat / Fish / Eggs

  • Shredded chicken breast
  • Tinned salmon
  • Tinned tuna
  • Leftover roast beef, pork or lamb
  • Boiled eggs

 

Dairy

  • Tetrapack of milk
  • Tub or tube of yoghurt
  • Low fat cheese cubes or slices

 

If you can mix and match something from most of these groups in a lunch box, you’re guaranteed to have variety of complimentary nutrients while also managing the sugar, salt and fat content of your child’s lunch.

Here are some simple lunchbox combinations:

  • Handful of grapes
  • Boiled egg sandwich
  • Snow peas with some beetroot dip
  • Tasty cheese stick

 

  • Cherry tomatoes
  • Chopped berries and tub of yoghurt
  • Crackers with tinned tuna and sliced cucumber

 

  • Tinned pineapple
  • Shredded chicken and high fibre pasta with mayo and corn
  • Baby cucumbers
  • Tetra pack of milk

 

If you’d like more examples some example of what a lunch box filled with these foods might look like, check out Kate Freeman’s article, Making School Lunches like a Pro.

 

2. Set some boundaries for buy-in

Have you ever asked the kids what they want for lunch, only to get the infuriating ‘I don’t know!’?

Once you and the kids know that the aim is to get something from each food group in the lunchbox, it can be much easier to ask for their input. Ask them to choose if they want apple or orange for their fruit. Yoghurt or cheese. Eggs or tuna. Carrots or cucumber – you get the idea.

Getting your kids to pick what fruit or what veg to have in their lunchbox gives them some control without the choice.

 

3. Plan for the week

As you can see, many of these whole-food balanced options require a little bit of preparation and it’s almost impossible to decide on, prep, and pack a lunch in the craziness of most mornings.

Taking a little bit of time to plan the lunch boxes for the week can save you LOADS of time and angst on a day-to-day basis. This can be as simple as picking one ‘main’ for the lunch and changing the snacks around it.

For instance, main each day is a wholegrain sandwich with chicken, corn and mayo mix with:

  • Monday – carrot sticks, yoghurt and banana
  • Tuesday – snow peas, yoghurt and apple
  • Wednesday – carrot sticks, cheese and banana
  • Thursday – snow peas, cheese and strawberries
  • Friday – baby cucumbers, tzatziki dip, packet of sultanas

 

Not only will this help you with the grocery shop but you can decide what to make in advance. For instance, the chicken, corn and mayo mix can be made in a big batch and spread on the sandwich each morning.

It’s important to remember that you don’t have to plan something different every day either. If you keep lunches and snacks the same all week, you can change it up the next week.

 

4. Be conscious of the treat foods

As the name suggests, treat foods are treats, not necessary to eat daily. In the world of nutrition, we call them discretionary foods as they are just that… discretionary. We don’t NEED them. There is nothing in a discretionary food that we can’t get from the core food groups above.

If there is a treat food in your child’s lunchbox every day, consider what message this might be sending to your child. That these foods are important or necessary every day? That a meal is not complete without a treat?

If you think about it from your child’s perspective, if they only have a short amount of time to eat, or they’re not very hungry and they have to choose between the veggie sticks and a packet of chips, the chips are definitely more likely to win.

That’s not to say that you should never put a treat food in your child’s lunch box, or that you can’t do it regularly. Simply do it consciously. Consider the lessons your child is learning about food by the way you prepare it and make it available to them.

 

If you’re struggling with healthy lunch options for your child, or you’re battling fussy eating at main meals, The Healthy Eating Clinic’s paediatric dietitian, Michelle Saunders, can help. Find out more about Michelle and the services at The Healthy Eating Clinic here


For individualised advice and support our team of dietitians at The Healthy Eating Clinic want to equip you with habit-based nutrition advice so that you can eat well for the rest of your life! Make an appointment today