Healthy lunches for... kids

What size should your child's portion be, what are their GDAs and how can you encourage fussy eaters to enjoy nutritious, midday meals? Find out in our guide to preparing healthy, fun-packed lunchboxes...

Healthy lunches for... kids

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 what a vital contribution lunchboxes make. 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 fussy eater

  • Smashed bean dip

    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.

  • 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.

  • If they refuse wholegrains, like wholemeal bread, don’t worry – some small children find fibrous foods too filling and they may even upset their small stomachs. Instead, supply fibre by opting for beans and pulses puréed into a creamy dip or add to salads or sandwich fillings. Introduce brown versions of rice, pasta and bread when your child is a little older. 

  • 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?

You’ve probably noticed that some food labels display the percentage of your Guideline Daily Amount (GDAs) that the food supplies – many manufacturers show these figures to help you make sense of the information on the label. GDAs are a guide to the amount of calories and nutrients an adult or child may have as part of a balanced, healthy diet. Remember, we all vary in size and activity levels so these figures are only a guide, but they can help you to see how much a food is contributing to your child’s daily diet.


Guideline Daily Amounts for children aged 5-10


Mango & banana smoothiePortion sizes for little ones (5-10 years)

  • Drinks:
    ​ • Ideal options include water, pure 100% fruit juice, milk or yogurt-based drinks (with less than 5% added sugar).
  • Dairy:
    • Yogurt/fromage frais, child-size pots vary from 50-100g.
    • Hard cheese like cheddar, approximately 15g-20g.
• Soft cheese, approximately 20-25g.

    • Glass of milk, approximately 150-175ml.

  • Calcium: 
    • Calcium is essential for bone-building. Good sources are milk, cheese, yogurt and fromage frais, as well as green leafy veg and canned fish.
  • Protein: 
    • Protein is important for helping your child to grow. It will also keep them feeling fuller for longer. Good choices include skinless chicken, oily fish, eggs and dairy foods, as well as beans and pulses for vegetarians. Give your child the amount they can fit in the palm of their hand.
  • Vegetables: 
    • Aim for two portions of fruit and veg, with at least one being veg or salad. Fresh, frozen, dried, canned or you can use a juice – they all count.
  • 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.
  • Fruit:
    • The amount your child can fit in the palm of their hand – typically one small apple or banana, or three or four cherry tomatoes.

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:

Amounts per 100g:
 What's a lot What's a little
FatMore than 17.5g3g or less
SaturatesMore than 5g1.5g or less
SugarMore than 22.5g5g or less
SaltMore than 1.5g0.3g or less


Ideas to get kids to eat up!

  • Hard-boiled eggMake 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 alittle lime juice. Serve in tubs.
  • Swap the tuna mayonnaise in their sandwiches for tinned mackerel or salmon mixed with mayonnaise – these will provide a higher amount of essential omega-3 fatty acids.
  • Freeze berries, banana slices or grapes before packing into containers – they will defrost by lunchtime but keep 
the lunchbox cool.

  • Instead of a sandwich, give them
 a little tub of houmous with blanched broccoli, raw carrot, red pepper or cucumber sticks for dipping.

  • Write a message or your
 child’s name onto a boiled egg or a banana skin.

Recipe suggestions:

Mango & banana smoothie
Lemon & coriander houmous
Tortellini with pesto & broccoli
More lunchbox recipes

Find more recipes in our family & kids collections
Now find healthy lunch ideas for teenagers and adults.


Comments, questions and tips

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debbieafw's picture

Great healthy ideas, but as a dentist I am afraid children should stay clear of the fruit juice especially if its in a resealable container. Sipping fruit juice is just as damaging as any sugary drink. Citrus fruit juices are high in acid and sugar ( the natural kind) , they make little holes in the teeth ready to let the sugar and bacteria in and have a feast! We are seeing major amounts of erosion and decay from these drinks as good parents see them as healthy. They are in limited amounts and as part of a major meal. Not during a snack break or at multiple sittings through the day.