For parents and children alike, the start of the school year can be a particularly fraught time. Not only is the return to strict routine and early mornings a shock to the system after the leisurely summer holidays, there's also a slew of firsts to contend with: new classes, teachers, classmates, kit, timetables – the list goes on.
With that in mind, anything that can be done to ease the back-to-school blues for all involved should be seized upon. Packing up a healthy, child-friendly lunch box every day is a task that many parents dread and often find not just repetitive, but downright disheartening if the contents are returned barely touched. This job is of course made all the more difficult by the rapidly fluctuating likes and dislikes of the little lunch box recipients, who usually don't share their parents' desire that they eat a nutritionally sound midday meal.
According to experts, a balanced lunch box should contain: a starch such as wholegrain bread or rice, pasta or potatoes; a protein element (think lean meat or fish, eggs, pulses or beans); a portion of dairy (cheese, milk or yogurt) and then ideally a serving of both fruit and vegetables. This makes perfect sense in theory, but can be almost impossible to put into practice at 6am on a Tuesday morning when time is short and tempers frayed.
There are, however, a few tried-and-tested techniques that you can employ to make the whole process easier, cheaper and, ultimately, more rewarding for everyone involved. The main savoury element of a lunch box tends to cause the most consternation, so the first step is to move away from convention – to some extent at least.
When you really think about it, sandwiches are a bit of a faff to make: they require you to first rifle through both fridge and cupboards, and then prepare a filling, before finally layering, slicing and wrapping. After all that, the worry remains that said sandwich will turn soggy or just be dismissed as boring.
Enter the deconstructed sandwich or roll. This idea works on the basis that you pack a lunch box containing all the components that might have made their way into the sandwich, but in separate containers or compartments. Come lunch, your child can put the items together themselves (upping the interest factor) or eat them individually – either way, your life is made simpler and their lunch suddenly seems that much more appealing. We've included a few ideas for deconstructed lunches below, but once you begin, you'll find that the variations are endless.
The second weapon in your crusade to win the battle of the lunch boxes is leftovers. Here it really pays to think ahead, which is a slightly annoying instruction we know, but one worth paying heed to nonetheless. Utilising leftovers from previous meals is not only pleasingly thrifty, it also saves time. Once the extra food has cooled down, it can be packed into portable containers that night, ready for any extra elements to be quickly added the next morning. Finally and perhaps most importantly, if your child enjoyed – or at the very least tolerated – the dish the night before, chances are the same will apply the next day.
If lunch without a sandwich element is something that the members of your family (old or young) struggle to embrace, then of course you don't have to. It is worth considering a few riffs on tradition, just to keep things fresh. The easiest way to do this is by varying the choice of bread: try pitta, naan and flatbreads, mini baguettes or slider rolls, fruit bread, focaccia, bagels, crumpets and buns. There's plenty of scope for simple, inventive bread alternatives, too, and you'll find suggestions below.
■ Pitta or flatbreads, hummus, raw vegetables and halloumi or feta cheese
■ Grated or sliced cheddar, wholegrain crackers, sweet peppers and celery sticks
■ Wholegrain rice or sushi rice, cooked or smoked fish, broccoli florets and natural yogurt mixed with soy sauce for dipping
■ Wholegrain bagel, little pot of cream cheese, bresaola and thinly sliced cucumber
■ Toasted wholegrain tortilla wraps, mashed kidney or cannellini beans, tomato salsa and grated cheddar
■ Baguette slices, tuna mixed with mayonnaise, sweetcorn and sliced hard-boiled egg
Leftover lunch box ideas
■ Pasta mixed with pesto, peas and mini mozzarella balls:
Add a drizzle of olive oil, pesto sauce, blanched peas and mozzarella to leftover pasta. Check with your child's school whether they allow nut products on the premises.
■ Meatballs in tomato sauce with sliced cheese and a soft brown bread roll:
Keep the meatballs and sauce separate from the bread so it doesn't turn to mush. Your little one can then decide if they want to dip the bread into the sauce, or build their own meatball sub.
■ Roast chicken and potatoes in a yogurt-mayo sauce:
Thinly shred the cooled chicken and chop the potatoes that accompanied it (steamed, roasted, baked or boiled – they all work). Mix with a dressing made from two-parts mayo to one-part yogurt, then add diced cucumber for crunch.
■ Leftover curry with rice or naan bread:
Keep the curry and the rice or naan separate. Add a container with a few mini poppadums for extra points, as well as a pot of mango chutney.
■ Stir-fry skewers with noodles:
Thread leftover stir-fried meat or fish and vegetables onto child-safe plastic skewers and pack the sauce-covered noodles in a separate container.
The non-sandwich sandwich
■ Summer rolls:
Fill rice paper rolls with raw vegetables, herbs, shredded meat or fish. Add noodles or rice to the rolls or present in a little pot on the side.
Assemble the quesadillas the night before. For a simple version, top a wholegrain tortilla wrap with grated cheddar, thinly sliced apple and another tortilla wrap. In the morning, grill on both sides then leave to cool slightly and wrap tightly in foil.
■ Bread-free rolls:
Spread thin slices of beef, turkey, chicken or smoked salmon with cream cheese or labneh and arrange a little pile of vegetable sticks in the middle. Roll up into cylindrical shapes.
Adding some bulk to those boxes
While the suggestions above cover the main component of the lunch box, many will still need to be supplemented with an extra snack item or two.
■ Crunchy vegetables with a cream cheese or labneh-based dip.
■ Blanched edamame beans with low-sodium soy sauce.
■ A portion of peeled and halved boiled egg.
■ Cherry tomato and mozzarella skewers (add a few olives if your child is a fan).
■ Mini savoury scones. Make these at the weekend and defrost in the fridge overnight.
■ Crispy chick peas. Cook drained chickpeas in a frying pan with a little oil until crisp and golden, then sprinkle lightly with Chinese five-spice (the sweetness of this powder appeals to children).
Sweet treats that are low in sugar
■ Chocolate date balls: Blitz chopped dates, maple or date syrup, grated coconut and cacao powder in a blender. Roll into bite-sized pieces and keep in the fridge for up to a week.
■ DIY granola parfait: Pack a pot of unsweetened yogurt, along with some chopped fruit and a little bag of nut-free granola – your child can build their own.
■ Home-made fruit smoothie: Blitz frozen fruit with natural yogurt in the morning and the drink will still have an appealing, slushy texture at lunch time.
■ Mini low-sugar fruit muffins: Make a batch of these at the weekend and defrost in the fridge overnight.
■ Fruit skewers: Use a mix of brightly coloured dried and fresh fruit and include a little pot of yogurt on the side for dunking.