Healthy lunches for... kids
What is a child-sized portion, what are their recommended Reference Intakes (RI) and how can you encourage kids to enjoy a healthy lunchbox? Find out here.
With more than half of children taking a packed lunch to school – that's a staggering five billion lunches a year – not to mention the many office and outdoor workers who rely on them, it's clear that packed lunches are part of the daily routine for many. That said, thinking up inspiring ideas can be a challenge. It's tempting to fall into the trap of using packaged, ready-made options. Although these seem like the easy answer, they tend to be high in fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar.
Keep choices varied, fresh and tasty, high in protein, veg, fruit and fibre, but low in fat, salt and sugar. Lunch is an important point in the school day and should provide at least a third of your child’s daily requirements – without it youngsters struggle to concentrate in the afternoon. Pack plenty of sustaining, nutritious options to make the school day a productive one.
Coping with a selective eater
- Involve your child in planning and preparing their lunchbox – kids are more likely to try foods that they've been involved in selecting and making. Make this an interesting and fun activity, so that they want to get involved.
- Children are happier choosing from a small range of foods. If your child seems to pick just one or two favoured things every day, this is not unusual – gradually introduce more options but be prepared to be patient.
- Offer a wide variety of wholegrain carbohydrates to choose from. If they don't like wholemeal bread, how about swapping to pasta, rice couscous or quinoa, jacket potatoes, sweet potatoes or try a wrap or pitta bread. Beans and lentils work well too and can be blended into a dip (e.g. hummus).
- Talk with your child about things that they might like to try, or foods that their friends are eating. Invite friends over as an opportunity to engage your child.
- It's normal for children to go through phases of liking and disliking things – it's part of growing up. If one food isn't a hit, perseverance and patience are key. Keep exposing your child to the food (up to 20-30 times) and if they consistently decline, try not to make a fuss over it, just remove it and try again another day.
- Talk with other parents and use their child's healthy appetite as an example for yours to follow.
- Don't use food as a reward – this reinforces the idea that sugary, fatty foods are better options than healthy whole fruit or dairy products.
How much does my child need?
The easiest way to check your child is eating the right amount and achieving a balanced, healthy diet is to compare the nutrition information for recipes and food labels to the Reference Intake (RI). You'll see this term being used on food packaging in place of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs). Many manufacturers show these figures to help you make sense of the information on the label and to help you see how much a food is contributing to your child's daily diet.
RIs are a guide to the amount of energy (kilocalories), fat, saturated fat, carbohydrates, protein, sugar and salt an adult or child may have, but remember, we all vary in size and activity levels so these figures are only a benchmark. Be aware that the figures for fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt are maximum amounts.
Guideline Daily Amounts for children aged 5-10
- Energy – 1,800kcal
- Protein – 24g
- Carbohydrates – 220g
- Sugar – 85g
- Fat – 70g
- Saturates – 20g
- Fibre – 15g
- Salt – 4g
What and how much to include for little ones (5-10 years)
• Ideal options include water or milk (100-175ml).
- Dairy (include a lunchtime portion every day):
• Yogurt/fromage frais, child-sized pots vary from 50-100g.
• Hard cheese like cheddar, approximately 15g-20g.
• Soft cheese, approximately 20-25g.
• Glass of milk, approximately 150-175ml.
• Calcium is essential for bone-building. Good sources are milk, cheese, yogurt and fromage frais, as well as green leafy veg and canned fish (with bones), like salmon and sardines.
- Protein (include a lunchtime portion in addition to dairy every day):
• Protein is important for helping your child to grow. It will also keep them feeling fuller for longer. Good choices include chicken and other lean meats, oily fish, eggs, as well as beans and pulses such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas for vegetarians. Give your child the amount they can fit in the palm of their hand.
- Fruit and vegetables:
• At lunch include at least one portion of fruit and one of veg or salad. A portion is the amount your child can fit in the palm of their hand – typically one small apple or banana, 4-6 carrot sticks or 3-4 cherry tomatoes. Fresh, frozen, dried, canned or you can use a juice – they all count. But remember, to reduce the risk of tooth decay, juice and dried fruit is best eaten as part of a meal and not as a between-meal snack. Limit fruit juice and smoothies to a combined total of 150ml per day and avoid drinks which say "juice drink" on the label because these are unlikely to contribute to your child's five-a-day.
- Starchy carbs:
• Such as bread, noodles, pasta, rice or potatoes. These are important for energy and should make up a third of their lunchbox – opt for wholegrain versions or, for sandwiches, try one of the high-fibre 'white' breads.
Buy healthier – what to check on the label
When you do buy ready-packaged options, read the label – this is key to making good choices.
Here's the information you need at your fingertips when buying packaged food:
Fat per 100g:
More than 17.5g per 100g – considered a lot
Less than 3g per 100g – considered a little
Saturated fat per 100g:
More than 5g per 100g – considered a lot
1.5g or less per 100g – considered a little
Sugar per 100g:
More than 22.5g – considered a lot
5g or less – considered a little
Salt per 100g:
More than 1.5g – considered a lot
0.3g or less – considered a little
Here's the information you need at your fingertips when buying drinks:
Fat per 100ml:
More than 8.75g – considered a lot
1.5g or less – considered a little
Saturated fat per 100ml:
More than 2.5g – considered a lot
0.75g or less – considered a little
Sugar per 100ml:
More than 11.25g – considered a lot
2.5g or less – considered a little
Salt per 100ml:
More than 0.75g – considered a lot
0.3g or less – considered a little
Choosing a healthy drink can be difficult especially when so many of them are high in sugar. For more information check out Action on Sugar.
How to encourage healthy eating habits
- Be a good role model. Sit and eat together (when possible) and talk about your day as a family, without the distraction of the TV or phones.
- Involve your kids in the cooking – whether it's choosing recipes, food prep or cooking together.
- Keep active. Play and have fun with your children and try and make sure that everyone goes outside at least once a day.
- Keep an eye on portion sizes. Remember that children need less food than adults, so start with less and let them ask for more. Don't insist on eating everything on the plate. Stick to a regular eating routine and pattern as much as possible to regulate appetite.
- Aim for 5-a-day. Make fruit more exciting with a fruit slaw. Cut apple, firm mango, peaches and plums into fine matchsticks, add a few blueberries and toss together with a little lime juice. Serve in tubs.
- Freeze berries, banana slices or grapes before packing into containers – they will defrost by lunchtime but keep the lunchbox cool. Alternatively, make smoothie 'lollies' as a dessert.
- Snacks don't have to be sweet. Swap cakes and biscuits for a little tub of hummus or mashed beans with blanched broccoli, raw carrot, red pepper or cucumber sticks for dipping.
- Make food fun. Serve meals in the shape of a face and try to include lots of different colours, tastes and flavours in the meal.
- Choose a fun, colourful lunchbox which they'll look forward to opening at break time. We've reviewed a selection of child-friendly lunchboxes that deliver both on practicality and fun factor.
More kids' lunchbox inspiration
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This article was last reviewed on 14th October 2019 by Jo Lewin.
Jo Lewin is a registered nutritionist (RNutr) with the Association for Nutrition with a specialism in public health.
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