What to put in a lunchbox

Download our guide to a good packed lunch for little ones and check our top tips for older children below. Don’t forget, on our Let’s Get Cooking at Home website you can create your own personalised online cookbook from over 250 healthy recipes.

Only around  one in a hundred packed lunches in England meet children’s nutritional needs. A balanced diet is about eating lots of different foods to get the nutrients you need, and it’s hard to get that variety into lunchboxes (but much easier to do in a hot meal). So if you’re going down the packed lunch route, be prepared to put in a fair bit of time and effort.

The cost of a decent packed lunch varies a lot depending on where you shop, but if you’re smart about preparing lunchbox foods in batches, it’s possible to do it very economically. But don’t forget to factor in the effort that good packed lunches take – school meals might seem more expensive, but they do save a lot of time.

What should my child’s packed lunch include?

A starchy food ...(click for more details)

StarchyFood…like bread, pasta, cous cous or potato. Wholegrain varieties contain more fibre so choose these where you can. And while sandwiches are often our go-to choice, you can use different types of bread to give kids variety – pitta, wraps, bagels, chapattis or toast fingers with a dip. Some children prefer to make their own sandwich up if you give them the components. And don’t forget, leftover pasta, noodles, potatoes or cous cous can be the makings of a cold packed lunch salad the next day as long as you cool and store them properly.

Fruit and veg ...(click for more details)

Girl Biting Yellow Fruit small…we all need to eat more of these, whatever our age! Get veg into packed lunches in all sorts of ways: on their own (e.g. sticks of cucumber, carrot, pepper, celery, cherry tomatoes, baby corn, sugar snap peas, pots of mixed salad), as part of sandwiches or stick pulses like kidney beans and chickpeas in pasta salads. Halved cherry tomatoes in a pot, instead of tomato slices in sandwiches, can help to avoid the soggy sandwich effect.

For fruit, children often prefer a pot of chopped fruit rather than whole fruit (especially younger children). Try chopped apple (stop it turning brown by rinsing it in diluted lemon juice), satsuma segments, strawberries, blueberries, halved grapes (longways) or melon slices on their own, or as a mixture. Small pots of canned fruit in juice can work well, or with some yoghurt (remember the spoon!)

Raisins, sultanas and dried apricots are another popular choice – and they’re cheaper and often healthier than processed fruit snacks, which may contain added sugar and be more damaging to children’s teeth.

Beans, pulses, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins ...(click for more details)

Totley Primary School Sheffield Feb2012 (Falafel)…mix it up rather than the failsafe ham sandwich: try strips of chicken, beef, pork, cooked or canned tuna or salmon. Meat alternatives like soya, tofu, Quorn, or cooked egg can also work well in sandwiches or salads. Try houmous or other bean dips with strips of pitta and veg sticks, or as a topping for crispbreads and crackers. Peanut butter’s another option, but always check your school’s policy on nuts before trying this one.

Dairy foods ...(click for more details)

Milk-DairyPack milk as a drink (go for semi-skimmed of 1% milk – all the same vitamins, just less fat). If you want to go for flavoured milk, check the label and choose one with lower sugar. You can also put cheese in sandwiches, with crackers or fruit, or as sticks or cubes. Don’t forget, cheese can be high in fat and salt so choose stronger-tasting ones (you can use less of it) or reduced-fat varieties cheese, and don’t pack cheese every single day. Yoghurt or fromage frais are also great choices – go for the plain varieties or check the labels and choose pots that are lower in sugar. Rice pudding pots or custard with fruit are also good packed lunch puds.

A drink ...(click for more details)

girls_water_mall-smallPlain milk or water are the best choices for children’s teeth. If you want to pack fruit juice in your child’s lunchbox, stick to a 150ml portion. Better still, dilute it with still or sparkling water to make it more hydrating. It’s best to avoid drinks like squash, fruit juice drinks and flavoured water (even if they’re labelled as ‘sugar-free’, ‘no added sugar’ or ‘reduced sugar’) – they offer very little nutritional benefit, and some schools ask you not to bring them in

Don't forget ...(click for more details)

  • Lunchbox food
    Lunchbox food

    instead of chocolate bars or cereal bars, pack lower-sugar alternatives like scones, malt loaf, fruit bread, plain popcorn or fruit in sugar-free jelly

  • instead of processed fruit snacks, choose fresh fruit or plain dried fruit
  • instead of crisps, try plain rice cakes, oat cakes or breadsticks with cheese or unsalted nuts (check nut policies in schools first)
  • get children involved in choosing and preparing what goes into their lunchbox, to help encourage them to eat it
  • pre-prepared fruit and veg are generally more expensive than doing it yourself, so get some small pots and prep them yourself to cut the cost
  • using leftovers as part of packed lunches is a good way to cut down the prep time, but make sure it’s cooled and stored properly
  • make sure that what you pack is easy for little fingers to open, and to eat
  • children often love a bit of DIY – wraps and pots of fillings can be more exciting if they get to put them together
  • dipping foods rule for many kids, so give breadsticks or toast fingers, veg sticks and a pot of houmous or our fabulous fish pate a try.