Think outside the lunchbox

Preparing diverse school lunches that are as delicious as they are nutritious can be a daily challenge for parents. So Andrea Mara asked three experts for help

At least once a week, when I collect my two older children from school, there's a question my seven-year-old asks me: "Mum, no offence, but who made my lunch today - was it you or dad?" This usually means she's been given "dark cheese" when of course she only likes "light cheese" or maybe she's gone off cheese altogether - it's hard to keep up. And with my third child starting school this month, I now have three complicated menus to remember. School lunches are the bane of many a parent's life, but surely there are some ways to make the whole process easier? I asked three mothers - a teacher, a food blogger, and a dietitian - for their help.

The food blogger

Louise McGuckin is a former English teacher and mum of three fussy eaters, which prompted her to start her blog, ''. "If you're successful with school lunches, you should want to eat them yourself," says Louise. "And whether you like it or not, making lunches does have to become a military operation. The kids empty their lunchboxes when they come in from school, wash them and line them up ready to be filled again. We have a lunch shelf in the fridge stocked with cherry tomatoes, mini portions of cheese, and fruit; and one in the freezer too with muffins and bread all ready to go - so even if you oversleep, the kids know where stuff is."

Like me, Louise knows all about fussy eaters and different menus. "We don't make sandwiches each day as mine won't eat them. Instead, I deconstruct them. So a roll with cherry tomatoes and mozzarella balls on the side is really a cheese and tomato sandwich in disguise."

Louise has a common sense approach to lunch-making. "Lots of articles suggest cutting sandwiches into different shapes but, realistically, who has time for that? We often use leftovers in lunchboxes. Cold pasta with pesto or Parmesan cheese becomes a salad, and chicken goujons or pizza go in there too - much to the envy of school friends."

The Teacher

Mum of four Susanne O'Reilly is a primary school teacher, so when it comes to lunches, she sees it from both sides. First of all, she says it's important to buy the right lunchbox. "Make sure they can open and close lunchboxes and water bottles. It's worth investing in a proper water bottle that's easy for them to close, otherwise they leak all over the books."

She has also noticed that smaller kids can have trouble with particular foods. "Don't put in whole apples - the younger kids never get a chance to eat them all. Give mandarins that are already peeled, and sandwiches with the crusts cut off if they don't eat crusts. And don't give yoghurts - they spill all over the place."

It's also important to stick to the school's healthy eating policy, if they have one. "Lots of schools have a 'no treats' policy," says Susanne. "And, of course, no nuts, in case of allergies."

So that covers what you should leave out of the lunchbox, especially for younger children - but what kind of foods has Susanne seen work well? "Peppers, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and carrots, also bananas, wraps, rice cakes and bagels." And for drinks? "Bottled water, no juice."

The Dietitian

Dara Morgan is a dietitian ( and mum of three, who was involved in developing a healthy eating policy for her children's school, Rampark National School, in Lordship, Co Louth. "It has totally eliminated requests from my children for fun foods to be included in their lunchboxes," says Dara.

Her top tip for parents is to use a click and close, layered lunchbox. "I use the top tray to include fruit and vegetables, and underneath goes their sandwich or wrap or bagel or crackers. To speed things up, when I'm unpacking my shopping, I take things like sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes and berries out of their packaging, wash them and place them in little bowls in the fridge. It's very easy to take a couple from each bowl and it makes for a very colourful lunch box, fast."

Like Susanne, she advises against giving unpeeled oranges to smaller children, and she has a good tip for apples: "I use my apple slicer to core and slice an apple, then dip in orange juice and quickly dab off excess juice on some kitchen towel. This stops it going brown.

"I think it's important to keep lunches simple - an over-exotic, complicated lunch is of no use if it's not eaten. Some children come home with the lunch still in their lunchbox at the end of the day."

Healthy Tips

Joana Caldeira Fernandes da Silva, chief specialist in nutrition at Safefood, has some tips for healthy lunchboxes:

* Replace crisps with popcorn, biscuits with crackers, and fizzy or dilutes with ice cold water in a colourful water bottle.

* Sandwiches made with wholegrain bread and cereals are much better than white bread and great for maintaining energy levels throughout the day, and will keep your child fuller longer.

* Instead of processed ham (which, granted, can be an easier option but it's really high in salt), try alternating with a small portion of chicken breast, which is high in protein and excellent for your child's development.

* We recommend that you try to vary what's in the lunchbox during the week and introduce lots of different colours of fruits and chopped-up veg when you can.