Monday 17 June 2019

Get the school year off to the right start with these nutritious lunch box ideas

Get expert tips on how to make the perfect lunch box
Get expert tips on how to make the perfect lunch box

In just three weeks’ time, the little ones will be heading back to school and preparation is already well underway. New books are being bought, PE clothes are being labelled and musty, half-torn checklists are being unearthed from the bottom of school bags around the country.

Another thing you’ll be thinking about is the school lunch. Maybe you’re already dreading the arguments you’ll have with your child when you find a weeks-old mushy banana squashed in their bag and anticipating the arguments you’ll battle through as you try to convince them to eat well.

It’s not always easy. Children are fussy eaters at the best of times and when you’re not in the classroom with them to keep an eye on what they eat, it can be hard to tell if they’re getting the nutrients they need or stuffing them into the bin. Lunch packing can be a grind but there are ways to make it easier.

We’ve teamed up with the National Dairy Council, food writer Lilly Higgins and dietitian Louise Reynolds from the Irish Nutrition and Dietetics Institute (INDI) to get expert tips on how to spruce up school lunch boxes. You might even find that you never have to argue with your children over school lunches again... ‘Wishful thinking’, you say but you might be surprised.

Mother-of-three Lilly Higgins knows all about fussy eaters. “My eldest won’t eat bread so sandwiches are a ‘no’,” she says. “But I try to sneak vegetables into everything which I think most parents try and do.”

For Lilly, the key to a successful lunch box is variety. “I would get sick of packing the same thing and I’m sure my kids would get sick of seeing the same thing because they tell me that,” she says. “So what I’m trying to do is get new ideas that will make it fun for everybody and for kids to eat what I’m packing as well.”

Mother-of-four Louise Reynolds encourages nutrition to be at the forefront of every idea. Not only do you want the lunches to look good but you also want your children to eat what you pack.

Food pyramid 2.png

The carbohydrate shelf is really important for energy (wholegrain bread, pittas, rice or pasta). The fruit and vegetable shelf is important for vitamins, minerals and fibre. The dairy shelf (yogurt, cheese, milk, smoothies) is important for calcium and protein. In fact, The Department of Health’s Healthy Eating Guidelines recommend three servings from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group each day as part of a healthy, balanced diet. Between the ages of 9-18 years, five servings per day are recommended due to the increased calcium requirements at this life stage. Examples of one serving include a 200ml glass of milk, 125g yogurt and 25g (matchbox size piece) cheddar cheese. Finally, something from the protein shelf (fillings for sandwiches such as meat, egg or fish) should be added.

Before you start, Lilly and Louise recommend getting the children involved with the preparation. Research shows that fussy eaters are far more likely to eat something when they understand how it’s been made.

“If the kids are helping with it, they tend to eat it and they’re sort of proud of what they make,” says Lilly.

Sandwich fillers

  • Avocado, crunchy peppers and cheddar
  • Tuna and sweetcorn, spinach leaves and mayonnaise
  • Chicken, mixed salad and tomato relish
  • Turkey, grated cheddar and tomato

Sandwich alternatives

  • Pesto pasta salad with chicken and peppers
  • Mild spice couscous with roasted veg and chickpeas
  • Brown rice salad with sliced hard-boiled egg, avocado and spring onion
  • Homemade soup and brown bread
  • Wholewheat savoury muffins with grated vegetables (these can be prepared in advance, frozen and will defrost well on the way to school)


  • Carrot and red pepper sticks with hummus
  • Cubed cheddar cheese with grapes
  • Fruit salad with yogurt and seeds
  • Fresh fruit smoothie made with yogurt or milk (mini flasks with keep it cold)
  • Alternative Sweet Treats
  • Homemade flapjacks
  • Homemade banana bread
  • Mixed unsalted nuts
  • Mini box of raisins
  • Yogurt with dried fruit
  • Mini seeded bagels with cream cheese, cinnamon and raisins

Remember to keep portion size in mind for primary school children. You want something small enough that they can manage.

Louise’s advice for fussy eaters is to “stick with it”. She says: “Don’t panic, if your child really just likes the same thing go with that for a while but don’t be afraid to try something different and hopefully they will become more adventurous as they get a little bit older.”

When it comes to teenagers, Louise suggests giving them leftover dinners to take to school. “It’s a good way to avoid food wastage”.

For further information tips and recipes, check out the National Dairy Council website.

Sponsored by: NDC

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