We all know that in order to be healthy, happy, and to achieve their potential, children and young people need to eat a variety of nutritious foods every day. And contrary to popular (my children’s) belief, it is possible to provide them with a healthy school lunch that not only tastes great but is good for them. I know I am not alone when I say that preparing school lunches is one of my least favourite chores. However, I have vowed that this year, it will not be my undoing each weekday morning.
Generally, a healthy lunchbox comprises six components:
In order to plan a healthy school lunchbox, it may be useful to think of your child’s intake at school in the context of their daily nutritional requirements. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend the number of ‘standard serves’ people should consume each day from the five core food groups – vegetables and legumes; fruits; grains (cereals); lean meat and alternatives; and milk, yoghurt, cheese and alternatives.
Recommended intakes for children and young people are outlined in the table below and are an average to aim for each day. Some children will eat more or less from each group, and still maintain good nutritional status. If your child is eating more from a particular food group, ensure these foods are not taking the place of foods from the other groups, or that they are not consuming too many calories from one or more group for typical growth.
What does a
You may like to roughly count how many serves from each food group your child is consuming, and see if they are meeting their recommended number of serves from each group per day, or if they are consuming too many discretionary foods – foods that offer little nutritional benefit and are usually high in sugar, salt and/or fat, like cakes, biscuits, deep fried foods, or pastries. Note what they eat for breakfast, when they get home from school, and at the evening meal, and then pack what’s missing in their lunchbox.
Good examples of nutritious foods for lunchboxes from each of the core good groups include:
And of course, the foods (the discretionary foods) that do not belong in a healthy school lunchbox and are best avoided at
Try these practical tips to help streamline school lunch box preparation:
Give children and young people some choice about what they take for lunch, and where possible, get them involved in lunchbox prep. Take them shopping and allow them to choose fruits and vegetables for their lunchbox, or let them help prepare sandwiches, or bake healthy muffins.
It is important to remember that school is a time when children are starting to make independent lifestyle choices – they are quick learners and are influenced by peers and society. As such, it is a perfect time to talk about and encourage healthy food habits.
It is also important to remind yourself and your child that school lunches do not need to be fancy or complicated to be nutritious and satisfying – children do not need a $60-8 compartment-Disney-character lunch pail, nor do they need chips or juice or confectionary, or tuckshop every day. Hopefully, with some forward planning, a little bit of preparation, and some new ideas, the agony of packing a school lunchbox will become a thing of the past.
Catherine Bonifant has been a paediatric dietitian for over 17 years, in addition to private consultant work with
Catherine worked at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Brisbane as a clinical paediatric dietitian for more than 13 years, and also managed her own paediatric private practice based at the Mater Specialist Centre in Brisbane, specialising in infant nutrition.
Catherine has worked as a consultant dietitian with elite athletes at the Queensland Academy of Sport and with