Back to school health check: Packed lunches

School girl sat on bench with packed lunch and backpack

September is here, summer is over and it’s time to go back to school. Doubtless parents up and down the country have spent the past few days frantically buying uniform, seeking out sports kit and stocking up on stationery essentials – but amongst all start-of-term madness, have you given thought to your children’s packed lunches?

Starting or returning to school places all sorts of social, emotional, and mental stresses on children, and nutrition plays a vital role in helping them face up to the day-to-day demands of school life with strength and confidence. Here, Holland & Barrett nutritionist Elizabeth Wall gives her tips on how to make sure your children are getting everything they need from their lunch time.

Packed lunches vs. in-school options

“Poor nutrition can lead to physical and mental fatigue and this can lead to difficulties in concentration, slower cognitive development and even behavioural problems,” says Elizabeth.

“Preparing a packed lunch enables the parent to have an input and an element of control over the foods their child is consuming and this can be of particular importance if a child has allergies or food intolerances. Providing a healthy packed lunch also requires organisation and preparation. Whilst this can be enjoyable for some, for others it can be an additional burden. Choosing the option for school dinners puts the responsibility in the hands of someone else.”

Cost can also be a common debatable issue with some parents arguing school lunches are more expensive, whereas some parents will argue the cost to prepare a healthy packed lunch is higher.

What to include

Children require anywhere between 1300 and 2000 calories depending upon their age, rate of growth and lifestyle.

“An ideal lunch would be healthy, nutritious and balanced meal consisting of important macro and micronutrients. Slow releasing complex carbohydrates such as wholemeal bread, whole wheat pasta and whole grains help to regulate blood sugar and release energy throughout the day. Protein is also needed for growth and repair and include sources such as meat, fish, dairy, soya, beans, pulses and chickpeas.”

In addition to this, essential fatty acids – which boost mood and promote memory – are always a good choice for learning children. These can be found in oily fish, nuts and seeds, avocados and omega 3 rich eggs. Elizabeth adds:

“It also is important for school-age children to meet the recommended intake levels of all essential vitamins and minerals. Calcium and vitamin D are considered to be of high importance as these nutrients are necessary for proper bone growth and maintenance of bone density.”

Girls eating packed lunch

Make it fun

We all know how hard it can be to get kids to eat healthily, but by making the process fun and interesting you boost the chances of them maintaining a balanced diet. Elizabeth suggests using bright colours and interesting shapes to draw children in, and disguising boring foods as tasty treats.

“Why not try homemade meat or cheese and vegetable kebab sticks as an alternative to boring sandwiches or mashed avocados or cold pressed oils as an alternative to spread? Using vegetables or dried fruits as ingredients in home baking is another great way to increase intake of micronutrients whilst kids just think they’re getting a sweet treat. Carrot and courgette muffins, chocolate beetroot cake and homemade flapjacks made with dried fruits and oats are all good examples of this.”

Allowing your child to be involved in the preparation can also make lunch exciting. This can easily be done by giving them a choice between two healthy items you have selected or taking them along on the weekly food shop. Ultimately, simply providing a variety of foods will not only encourage your child to try new things but also broaden their spectrum of different nutrients and keep boredom at bay.

Give it a go

An example of a healthy, well-balanced packed lunch would look something like this…

  • A wholemeal or wholegrain sandwich such tuna and sliced cucumberwith olive oil a teaspoon of mayonnaise and a teaspoon of cooked sweetcorn or free range omega-3 boiled eggs mashed in olive oil and cress.
  • Alternatively, you could try chicken and spinach with mashed avocado spread or a mixed bean and lentil wholemeal wrap with feta cheese and olive oil, herb and lemon dressing.
  • Crudités such as carrot sticks, cucumber, pepper with a small pot of hummus.
  • Homemade seeded flapjack or a healthy vegetable muffin.
  • Two portions of fruit. For example, one medium apple and handful of seedless grapes.

The Department of Health recommends all children from six months to five years old are given supplements which contain vitamins A, C and D[4].


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