What to put in your child’s school lunchbox: Ideas and tips for fun, nutritious meals

Experts weigh in on introducing foods, ensuring an array of flavours and giving little ones a say in what they eat

If you want to introduce your child to an ingredient, try pairing the new food with something they already like. Photo: Bumblebee Foods
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With the new school term starting this week, high up on the long list of things parents need to do is figure out what to put in their child’s lunch box day after day.

Dishes and snacks for lunchtime should be visually interesting, tasty and filling, but also act as fuel for the afternoon of learning ahead.

We ask parents, nutritionists and parenting experts for their tried-and-tested recommendations, as well as how much input children should have in creating their own lunch box so it won’t get brought home half eaten – and what to do if it is.

Qadreya Al Awadhi: 'Children love variety and colour'

Qadreya Al Awadhi is the founder and chief executive of Bumblebee Foods, which offers healthy, ready-made frozen meals for babies and toddlers.

Top tip: Children love variety and colour, so parents can always cut up fruits and vegetables into fun shapes to motivate them to eat more.

Top meal: A quick and easy meal I like to make is the sushi sandwich. Start by rolling sliced bread, remove the edges, add cheese, then corn and broccoli, and roll it. Cut into pieces and serve.

Introducing new foods: I like to introduce new foods as a side dish, and leave it for children to freely explore. Then incorporate it into their meals, and slowly build it up to become a part of their daily dose of nutrients.

Creative control: It is important that children have a say in their lunch as it creates a level of independence and trust.

Waste not: Research has shown that it can take up to 10 times for a child to accept certain foods, so while it is frustrating, remember it is completely normal. If your child is regularly leaving food uneaten, involve them in the cooking process, as it will motivate them to eat what they cook, especially when having the freedom to add their favourite toppings.

Lisa Sherrington-Boyd: 'Lunchboxes are to fill and fuel'

The UAE-based mother-of-three, author of the parenting guide @Principal_Lisa on Instagram, offers daily tips and tricks, including sleep and toilet training.

Top tip: Try not to send too much. I was once in a classroom with a little boy who was just sat staring at his lunch box. When I asked him why he was not eating, he said he just didn’t know where to start.

Lunchtimes in classrooms are fast-paced and noisy, so children can feel overwhelmed. Try to keep it simple and stick to trusted favourites initially, when tummies may have first-week butterflies.

Top meal: I find home-made muffins are a great way to give fibre if you add veggies such as carrots, courgette and sweet potatoes to the mix. You can use sugar alternatives such as jaggery to add some sweetness. Make a batch and freeze them.

Creative control: This is age-dependent. It could mean choosing the sandwich filling, the sauce for the pasta, the choice between hot or cold food or even the colour of the lunch box. These are all small elements that lead to the same destination, which is a sensible lunch box that is likely to be eaten.

Waste not: Personally, I feel that lunch boxes are to fill and fuel. School is hard work, so serve food that will do the job, it’s that simple. Swap what doesn’t work and stick to what does. Meal times at home can be for exploration and introducing variety at breakfast and dinner.

Yasmin Carey: 'The staples remain the same'

The working mum of three has more than 16,000 followers on Instagram, a platform she uses to raise neurodiversity and inclusion awareness.

Top meal: I tend to do sandwiches, wraps, rice or pasta. Sides are usually a mix of fruit, a muffin or some home-made banana bread, veggies such as cut-up carrots sticks, yoghurt, and some crisps.

Creative control: I’m always learning what they do and don’t like by keeping an eye on what gets eaten or left. To be honest, I don’t see the point in packing things in a lunch box that they won’t eat as this leaves them hungry and the food wasted.

Introducing new foods: Some of my children’s favourite lunch box snacks are berries, yogurts and fruit rolls. Each day, I mix things up to make the lunch a bit different, but ultimately the staples remain the same.

Waste not: We’re happy to take a food that is regularly ignored off the menu and often do this. Like us adults, children are allowed to dislike certain food.

Poppy Hawe: 'Gradually introduce new foods alongside familiar ones'

Nutritionist and PR executive Poppy Hawe puts simplicity at the heart of her lunch box ideas.

Top tip: Make smaller, incremental changes when serving up new dishes and snacks.

Top meal: You can achieve good taste without the need for too many ingredients. Some easy snacks are wholegrain crackers with cheese slices or cheese cubes, and wholegrain pasta salad with vegetables and a light vinaigrette dressing.

If you want to be a little more experimental, wraps are a great way to introduce new flavours in a fun parcel. I suggest hummus and veggie options using wholegrain wraps with Greek yoghurt, mixed berries and a drizzle of honey.

For sides, think dried fruit, apple slices, hard-boiled eggs, black beans, tomatoes, avocado, peaches and strawberries.

Creative control: Involving children in the lunch-planning process can help them feel more in control and increase their willingness to eat what's in their lunch box. Let them help choose fruits, vegetables and snacks at the grocery store.

Introducing new foods: Balancing introducing new foods and keeping old favourites is about finding a middle ground. Gradually introduce new foods alongside familiar ones. For example, if your child loves sandwiches, try introducing a new type of wholegrain bread or a different protein filling. Pair new foods with something they already like.

Waste not: If a food is being left on a regular basis, try reintroducing it later in a different form or alongside foods they enjoy. Children's tastes change over time, so what they didn't like before might become appealing later.

Updated: March 25, 2024, 9:45 AM