Whilst it is not mandatory in the UK, many schools have adopted healthier lunchbox policies, which have been shared with parents and carers to encourage healthy eating in school. These are usually based upon the principles of the Eatwell Guide, encouraging a lunchbox to contain:
- a starchy food, e.g. potatoes, bread, rice, pasta;
- plenty of fruit and vegetables, e.g. carrot sticks, an apple, sliced cucumber;
- a source of protein, e.g. beans, pulses, egg, fish, meat;
- a healthy drink, e.g. water, semi-skimmed milk.
Many schools also suggest to parents/carers that foods high in fat, salt and sugars should not be included (such as crisps, confectionary and sugar-containing carbonated drinks) and some schools have identified non-food based incentives for pupils to follow the healthier lunchbox policies; offering rewards such as stickers, certificates or team points. These policies aim to complement the provision already in place for school meals to help achieve a whole school food approach. The advice for healthier lunch policies relates to all of the UK.
What should be in a healthy lunchbox?
Eating a healthy, balanced lunch is vital for ensuring children have the right nutrients and enough energy to see them through the school day, however, achieving this balance is not always as easy as it sounds. 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. A packed lunch made at home can be a healthy and delicious choice and gives a parent or carer control over the foods and ingredients included.
A school lunchbox should:
Be based on starchy foods
- This can include potatoes, bread, pasta, rice, couscous, wraps, pitta and chapatti. Where possible wholegrain varieties should be chosen, e.g. wholemeal bread and leave skins on potatoes.
Include plenty of fruit and vegetables
- Include 1-2 portions and vary these throughout the week.
- You could add sliced vegetables into a pasta dish or sandwich.
- You could also include packs of chopped fresh fruits or individual packs of dried fruits.
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 salad.
- If you’re not including a dairy food in the main lunch item (e.g. in a salad or sandwich), add a yogurt or some cheese, such as a Cheddar stick, to the lunchbox.
- If you’re including a dairy alternative, e.g. 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 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.
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. Having a healthy lunch does not mean not allowing any treats. However, it’s a good idea to check the school policy that these items are allowed before giving them as healthy treats. Below are some ideas for healthier break time snacks.
- Whole or sliced fruit.
- Vegetable sticks, e.g. celery, carrot, pepper, 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.
- Bread sticks.
- Rice or corn cakes.
Another option of a healthier treat is to make individual bags of dried fruit by placing a small handful of mixed dried fruits, into food bags or sealed containers. However, children should avoid dried fruit as a break time snack as they are high in sugar and can be harmful to their teeth. Instead dried fruit should only be offered at meal times.
It may be worth considering whether your child could have a school meal as 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.
Other useful links
Healthy lunchbox ideas (Change 4 life)- https://www.nhs.uk/change4life/recipes/healthier-lunchboxes
Food Standards Scotland – https://www.foodstandards.gov.scot/consumers/healthy-eating/life-stages/children
How to make the perfect pre-school lunchbox! (EYNP) – http://www.eynpartnership.org/blog-news/how-make-perfect-pre-school-lunchbox
School packed lunch inspiration (BBC Good Food) – https://www.bbcgoodfood.com/howto/guide/school-packed-lunch-inspiration
Resources to support parental engagement around healthier lunchboxes – https://www.foodafactoflife.org.uk/whole-school/parental-engagement/#HL