My least favourite task of parenting has to be packing school lunch boxes. As we start the school year, I invite you to approach packing your child’s lunch box a little differently. These practical lunch ideas for kids are designed to help make this job simpler and easier, whether your kid is beginning Prep/Kindergarten or is a teen in high school.

What do I pack in my child’s school lunch box?

Many parents are looking for healthy lunch box ideas for kids  but are not sure where to start when selecting foods for their child’s lunch box. The Kids Dig Food team of Dietitians like to help parents keep it simple, and think beyond “healthy”. How can we support our kids to be well-nourished at school? 

Familiar foods – My first and most simple piece of advice is, to make a list of as many foods that are familiar and well-accepted by your child. These are foods that your child is most likely to eat if they are hungry. You can categorise this list into food groups if you like. It will help later. Familiar foods should make up the majority of what appears in your child’s lunchbox. To find out why, read on. 

Enough food – it seems obvious, but kids need enough food to support learning and play during the school day. They can’t do that hungry, or hangry. Many parents ask How much food is enough? This can vary a lot from child to child and will also change as they grow and develop. How much is enough? will even change from day to day, seemingly for no reason at all. Use your best judgement based on your child’s current eating patterns to decide how much food to pack, and don’t forget to check in with your child along the way. You will need to adjust the amount of food as time goes on. 

Pack a variety of foods – Keep the food groups in mind as you pack your child’s lunchbox: Grains + Fruit + Veggies + Dairy & High Calcium Non-Dairy substitutes + Protein (Meat/Fish/Poultry/Pulses/Nuts/Eggs)

Healthy Lunch

Variety is important for your child to get a range of nutrients AND knowing and understanding where your child is at with their food learning is as important as packing a variety. 

For example: If your child eats most foods easily and without complaint, feel confident to pack a wide variety. 

If your child has a more limited range of foods they enjoy, pack mostly familiar foods and as wide a variety as you can. Only add foods that your child hasn’t learned to like yet if you know they will be fairly relaxed about seeing them there when they open the lunchbox. If your child is likely to get anxious or upset with seeing a new food there, then the lunch box is not the best place for food learning to happen. 

For example: if your kid really dislikes cherry tomatoes and gets upset when they see them, then putting them in the lunchbox will not help them learn to like cherry tomatoes more quickly.

Pack foods that require minimal preparation

If you are really short on time, get familiar with all the foods available to you that require little or no time to prepare.  There are many packaged snacks that are quick and convenient for the lunchbox such as a variety of crackers, crisps and muesli bars. There are also many fresh foods that are quick and easy for the lunch box. Keeping in mind your child’s familiar foods, you can select from a combination of packaged and fresh foods to fill the lunchbox. See below for ideas.

Here are some non-packaged easy lunch ideas for kids that involve no or minimal preparation:

Kid Eating

There are many other foods you could also add to this list. Adding your own ideas will make the list more helpful to you. 

Fruit: Easy-peel or no-peel fruit e.g. banana, mandarin, apple, bite-size fruits (berries, grapes), dried fruit boxes, fruit tubs

Veggies: Baby carrots, baby cucumbers, green beans, cherry tomatoes, snow peas or sugar snaps

Dairy & High Calcium Non-Dairy substitutes: Yoghurt tubs (plain or fruit), cheese and cracker packs, cheese sticks/triangles/stringers/babybel, milk poppers (plain or flavoured)

Grains: Crackers (choose a variety of grains if possible), bread or wraps (filled or plain),  popcorn, pikelets, scones, dried breakfast cereals or granola

Protein Foods : Leftover meat, hard-boiled egg, single-serve dips (e.g. hommus),  seeds (pepitas, sunflower), roasted chickpeas and broad beans, small baked beans tin.

The Kids Dig Food team receives many questions from parents and caregivers wanting help with school lunch box challenges. Here are three of the most common questions below, and some tips to manage them

My child won’t eat at school. What can I do?

Considering the following questions will help you work out what to do next.

When is your child’s eating at its best?

If your kid is usually hungriest at breakfast, supporting them with a nourishing and filling breakfast may help them get through the day, even if they struggle to eat a lot at school. 

Your kid may be super hungry at afternoon snack time or dinner. Allow them to eat as much as they are hungry for at these times, even though it may seem a lot to you.

Do you suspect your child is too busy or distracted at school?

Pack foods that are bite-sized, quick and easy to eat, filling and satisfying. Gently check in with your child to find out if there’s a reason they aren’t eating much at school. It could be as simple as “I want to go play!”

Check you have ruled out skill issues.

Sometimes the reason for uneaten food in the lunchbox can be as simple as “I couldn’t open the container/packet”. Check that your child can easily open every container, packet or lid that you pack for them. 

My child is a picky eater, fussy eater or has only a small number of accepted foods due to Autism or ADHD, ARFID or Sensory Processing Disorder. What can I do?

  • The Number 1 recommendation here is, again – be sure to pack mainly familiar and usually-eaten foods in the school lunch box.
  • Only pack less familiar foods in the lunch box if your child is happy for them to be there. 
  • Involve your child in deciding what will go in their lunchbox so they know ahead of time what to expect, and hopefully look forward to eating it.
  • Continue including a variety of foods that your family enjoys at family meals at home. This is probably a better place for food learning to take place. 
  • Experiment with new foods on weekends and holidays.
  • Avoid any kind of pressure, punishment, or forcing children to eat.
  • Encourage independence with food preparation, meal time and eating tasks – this gives your child the opportunity to feel good about mastering tasks. 

I have a super-hungry kid who is ravenous at the end of the school day. What can I do? 

Your kid’s appetite will vary from day to day and over time. It always helps to check in with kids about whether you are getting the volume of lunch box contents right for them. 

Have you packed enough food?

Ask your child and honour your child’s appetite. Only they know how hungry they are.

Do we need to pack more filling and satisfying foods?

For example, check the lunchbox contains a balance of foods with carbohydrates (eg grains/bread/pasta/wraps/crackers, fruits), protein (eg meats, cheese, yoghurt, egg, seeds) and fats (low-fat options are not filling or satisfying for your child). 

Fact: Afternoon snack time is usually a really hungry time of the day for most kids.

It is reasonable to expect that most children are pretty hungry after school, so afternoon snack is an important meal time. Don’t wait for “I’m hungry!” Be ready with the after-school snack. Some families find a very early dinner time or serving more filling foods of leftovers at afternoon snack time helpful. 

Provide consistent mealtime structure outside of school

Children who have a reliable family routine of meals and snacks tend to be more relaxed around food in general and may experience less highs and lows with their appetite. If you notice that mealtimes are chaotic and your kids are often asking for food or helping themselves to the fridge or pantry, establishing a more reliable routine of meals and snacks may be the answer.

We hope this helps with more than just kids lunch box ideas, and we wish you well as the new school year starts!

The Kids Dig Food team

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image of unhappy kid faceplanting on the sandwich on his plate

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