Do you stress about what to make for your kids’ school lunch? If so, you’re not alone. Having to provide school lunch for your kids 183 days a year is draining. In this blog, I want to cut through the pretty Instagram pictures and give you some real-world advice on successful and stress-free school lunch box ideas (not a carved cucumber in sight!).
The stress of WHAT to pack for your kids’ school lunch is REAL!
From August onwards every year it’s easy to get sucked into the ‘back to school’ media hype. From your Insta feed, to free brochures at the supermarket you’ll soon be bombarded with lunchbox ideas.
You’d think it was the end of the world to give your child the same thing two days running!
What did you bring in your lunchbox?
Mine was a cheese or corned beef sandwich probably on white bread, along with a 5-4-3-2-1 (that’s a small chocolate bar for those that didn’t grow up in 80s Ireland), an apple and a Caprisun (a sweet orange juice drink). Not a pasta salad in sight!
Different times for sure! And while I’m not suggesting you pack sugary drinks and chocolate bars every day. A sandwich and an apple are fine!
I’m also pretty sure that my mother didn’t worry about whether I was bored with the same thing every day.
Yet, today as parents we’re expected to create a nutritious and inspiring lunchbox day in day out. It’s no wonder we stress out about school lunches.
Keep kids’ school lunch in perspective!
Those of us stressing that our child doesn’t eat their hummus, or moaning about the drudgery of making lunches day in day out are the fortunate ones!
If our child has anything to eat and drink in their school bag, then we should thank our lucky stars.
Your child’s nutrition doesn’t rest on one or two meals a day.
At most, your child’s lunchbox counts for two meals out of the entire day—morning snack and lunch. Meaning your child should have 3-4 other opportunities to eat during the day.
So, their whole nutritional status doesn’t rest on what they do and don’t eat at school.
A balanced diet can be achieved over the whole day, the whole week or even over a couple of weeks.
You’re not your child’s lunch box!
It’s easy to get sucked into the comparison cycle and come up short. This is especially so if you spend a lot of time following food and parenting bloggers. But, you know that your child’s lunchbox is not a reflection of how good a parent you are! Some lunches look like great ideas on Instagram but don’t work in reality.
Boring lunch ideas are OK.
Food flasks filled with homemade soups, muffins loaded with vegetables and nut-free power balls are lovely. But not everyone has the time, inclination or equipment to provide them.
These are optional extras, not basic requirements. I’m hard pushed to give these myself more than very occasionally! If you follow me on Instagram you’ll know that my lunch ideas are pretty boring 99% of the time.
Five real-world top tips for healthy kids’ lunch ideas
Tip #1 Get them involved
As soon as your child is able (much sooner than you think!), encourage them to make their own lunchbox ideas, kids love this. You can give some pointers, but after years of eating, most kids can figure out what is suitable. I’ve got a ‘lunch zone’ in the fridge.
It keeps food like sliced cheese, cold meat, hard-boiled eggs, basic vegetables like sliced cucumber and carrot sticks, washed fruit and yogurt in one place. And I have another zone in one of the cupboards for bread, crackers, dried fruit and seed mixes. Then I gave my boys a few simple healthy rules to follow (see below for food groups they should include).
Tip #2 Aim for balance in your child’s lunchbox
A balanced lunchbox has something from each food group:
- A fruit and/or veggies. Fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries, grapes, pears, apple, cherries, kiwi, plums, peaches) or veggies are great but don’t rule out handy standbys like tinned sweetcorn, baked beans, hummus and little pots of fruit in natural juice.
- Energy foods like bread, wrap, crackers, pitta, pasta, rice cakes, bagel or a roll, mostly wholemeal if you can but if your child only eats white try’ best of both’ as a compromise.
- Protein like meat liked cold sliced turkey, chicken or ham, beans, salmon, tuna, cheese, egg, hummus, seeds or yogurt. Nuts and nut butter are in this group too but aren’t allowed in most schools these days.
- Milk or water are the most tooth-friendly and low sugar option drinks.
This is the type of lunch I send with my Junior Infant
Tip #3 Don’t put too much food in
Kids often need less food than you think. How much do you eat while your kids are at school? If you eat a sandwich and an apple, then you shouldn’t expect your 5-year-old to eat the same amount!
If they come back with an empty lunchbox every day, check with them if they have enough to eat. If not, then offer more next time.
Tip #4 Fancy lunch boxes aren’t a priority
Of course, bento boxes look great in photos (that’s why I have some). And they can help some kids to eat better but in most cases aren’t necessary!
Although, I need to admit that I did buy a fancy Yumbox last year for my third boy. Honestly, it was for me more than him.
And I’ve bought another one last year when Alice started in Juniors. But, I’m sure they won’t score higher in the Leaving Cert than the two older boys who had the bog-standard ones! Do make sure though that whatever lunchbox you choose your child can open and close it themselves. Their teacher will thank you.
Tip #5 Presentation matters a bit
Fair enough, no one likes a brown apple. That doesn’t mean you need to create food art at 7 am. But, do make it easy for your child to eat.
So peel their mandarin, core and cut their apple and serve sandwiches in manageable sizes. Too many little pots and packages will be distracting for younger kids, so keep it simple.
A week of easy lunchbox ideas
These lunchbox ideas are quick and easy to make. Everything you need for healthy lunches.
Monday: Cheese quesadilla (choose a simple recipe) and cucumber slices
Tuesday: Sliced turkey or chicken on a bagel with cream cheese and strawberries
Wednesday: Pasta (mix leftover pasta from dinner with pesto and serve as pasta salad or hot in a food flask) and cheese cubes or cheese sticks (I try to change it up between blocks of cheddar cheese and kid-friendly products like cheese strings/cheese shapes and Babybel for my more reluctant cheese eaters!)
Thursday: Tuna sandwiches and some natural yoghurt with a drizzle of maple syrup and blueberries
Friday: Pizza or cheese roll ups (try this recipe or adapt the recipe by swapping the puff pastry for pizza dough) with chopped veggies like sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes (grape tomatoes) and grapes.
What if my child wants to bring the same lunch to school every day?
While variety is good, school isn’t always the best place for experimentation.
When all else is strange, especially for new Junior Infants, kids love food that is a comforting and familiar taste of home.
So, if your child wants to eat the same thing every day, no big deal.
Here are a few ideas to spice things up a little when packing lunch:
- Make small changes everyday-like making their favourite white bread sandwich on ‘best of both’ or using a slice of each and or trying something as small as cutting it into triangles instead of rectangles.
- Add a taster of new food- I often add a slice of cucumber or one spinach leaf. It mostly boomerangs back, but it adds variety and offers that much needed repeated exposure.
- Give a choice of two options (even if they always choose the same one!). ‘Would you like a ham sandwich or a turkey sandwich?’. You never know when they’ll be ready to try something new, and it helps them feel part of the process!
- Never ask ‘what would you like for lunch! You’ll get an easy answer every time.
- Let them make it themselves- this may or may not help to increase variety, but it’s a useful skill to have.
I’m in the same boat and I’m a dietitian! Out of my four kids, my second boy who’s in first year in secondary school has taken more or less the same lunch every day for years bar when he gets a notion for pesto pasta or baked beans in a flask.
Usually, it’s crackers with butter, a mandarin or apple (which he usually won’t eat) and water.
However, we make up for this at other meals so that he might have an omelette for breakfast or a peanut butter sandwich for an afterschool snack.
For some reason, he eats meat (and some fish) at home, but he doesn’t like to eat them cold or in a food flask at school! But he’s still walking, talking and growing so I’m not worried!
Weirdly, he’ll eat cheese scones but not cheese and scones! Figure that one out!
Here’s the recipe for cheese scones I use.
What if my child eats none of their school lunch?
It’s not your (or the teacher’s!) job to ensure your child eats! Distractions, fiddly wrappings and time limits for eating are among the many reasons some kids eat little or nothing at school.
The ‘Parent Provides, Child Decides’ motto can help you.
- Include familiar foods. An easy-going child might have no problem opening a box of new foods, but it might unnerve a more cautious eater. That doesn’t mean you can’t include ‘new foods’ in your child’s lunchbox, but you need to be considerate about it.
- Don’t offer a buffet. If you provide too many choices your child wastes time making their selection
- Make sure they can open (and close) their lunchbox quickly. Avoid fiddly lids and little tubs.
- Cut foods into smaller pieces
- Get realistic about portion sizes. For preschoolers, they need a snack; for big-schoolers, they need a snack and lunch combined. How much do they eat at home?! Base it on that.
- Offer a good breakfast and an afterschool snack. You can choose to offer the uneaten lunch after school, but it depends on how you present it. Don’t make it a punishment for not eating lunch!
- Be cool. Don’t greet your kids with ‘did you eat all your lunch’? You don’t need to make eating an issue! It’s better to ask them how they enjoyed lunch-time.
- Get them involved. Give a choice of two options or better still let them make it themselves.
- Don’t stress. There are at least three other meals during the day. They won’t starve!
READ MORE >>> The Division of Responsibility in Feeding
What veggies make good snack options?
Slice in half or stick one on a cocktail stick with a piece of cheese
Sugar snap peas
Crispy on their own or with a hummus dip
Cut into sticks and serve with some Greek Yoghurt, or cut into rounds and stick it on a lollipop stick. This is my little girl Alice’s favourite way to eat them!
Carrot sticks with cream cheese
Remember raw carrot is a choking hazard for children under 5 so make sure to cut into tiny matchstick shapes.
So look to Instagram and online for lunch tips. Every parent needs inspiration now and again. But don’t think it’s a lunch box fail if your child goes to school with a boring old cheese sandwich and an apple!
If you’re struggling with a fussy eater check out how I can support you to reduce mealtime stress and create the right environment for more adventurous eating.
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