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.

    Lunchboxes filled with wraps and fruit on a colourful background

    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

    Smashed bean dip in a bowl with celery sticks

    • 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?

    Pink lunchbox filled with fruit, veg, yogurt and snacks

    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
     
    Energy1,800kcal
    Protein24g
    Carbohydrates220g
    Sugar85g
    Fat70g
    Saturates20g
    Fibre15g
    Salt4g

     

    What and how much to include for little ones (5-10 years)

    Strawberry and vanilla milkshakes in glass bottles with straws

    • Drinks:
      ​ • 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: 
      • 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:
     

    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

    Here's the information you need at your fingertips when buying drinks: 
     

    Amounts per 100ml:
     
     What's a lotWhat's a little 
    FatMore than 8.75g1.5g or less 
    SaturatesMore than 2.5g0.75g or less 
    SugarMore than 11.25g2.5g or less 
    SaltMore than 0.75g0.3g or less 

    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

    Two hard-boiled eggs in cups with smiley faces drawn on

    • 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.

    Recipe suggestions:

    Mango & banana smoothie
    Super salad wraps
    Lemon & coriander hummus
    Chicken taco salad
    Tortellini with pesto & broccoli
    Chicken, carrot & avcado rolls

    More kids' lunchbox inspiration

    Healthy lunchbox ideas for kids
    10 healthy lunch ideas for kids
    School packed lunch inspiration
    Kids' lunchbox recipe collection 
    Healthy lunch ideas for teenagers and adults.

    Get ready for the new term with our back-to-school hub page.


    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.

    All health content on bbcgoodfood.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact  your local health care provider. See our website terms and conditions for more information.

    Comments, questions and tips

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    JOANNA MOBLEY
    18th Sep, 2017
    With the greatest respect, this article is first, old it appears to be written a few years ago judging from the dates of comments, and secondly it really is an old world view of what is healthy and whats not. Kids are now suffering from more allergies than ever, increasing rates of diabetes, child obesity and heart disease. Getting more informed about Dairy and Canned Fish would be a good start to writing an educated article about what is healthy, and putting wholefoods and vegetables as more important than an also-ran, would also be a good start. If you compare vs a McDonalds most food can be healthy, but if you want to start with advice on what really is healthy, I would recommend to start with clean foods that provide the Protein, Carbohydrates and Minerals/Vitamins that kids need, and ones that are natural and sustainable. Teaching them this dated view on what's "healthy", isn't going to help us change eating habits for the better.
    healthyeating33...
    17th May, 2016
    Articles like these are very informative but they aren't going to solve the childhood obesity problem. Only parents can do that. It starts at home. My boyfriend has a 29-year-old daughter who is morbidly obese (300 lb+) and she easily feeds her 9-year-old daughter more than 80 grams of sugar a day (multiple Sprites and various sugary treats in lieu of dinner when she turns up her nose at anything remotely healthy)...4 times the recommended allowance. Last night she came for dinner at my house because it was my boyfriend's birthday and her mom let her forego fajitas and have not just 1 but 2 pieces of birthday cake instead. I believe she WANTS her daughter to look like her. We've tried talking to her numerous times and have tried encouraging better eating habits but she seems actually proud that her daughter is "off the charts" at the doctor's office. She actually dumps MORE sugar on her already pre-sweetened cereal. It has caused many fights between my boyfriend and I because we feel powerless to help her. Now she is expecting her second baby and she will be harming another human life. Until parents break the cycle of "loving their children to death with sugar," it will continue and eventually our world will look like the very round characters in Wall-E. Making your child obese is child abuse, and I wish more parents would recognize that.
    debbieafw
    4th Sep, 2013
    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.
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