Any parent knows how much of a mind-bender it can be (a) thinking of new children’s packed lunch ideas and (b) getting children to accept different packed lunch foods. You might think you can get away with packing them up some sushi, edamame beans and spicy chickpeas but you’ll most likely find it all comes home again along with a very hungry, grumpy child.
The problem is we want to give children varied and healthy food but children want to be like all the other children, who will probably be having a ham sandwich, bag of crisps, a sweet bar and carton of juice, with a token handful of grapes, cherry toms or chunks of cucumber. [As I was writing this my boy came in and I asked him what he’ll make his children for packed lunch, when he has them. he said “A little ham sandwich, some cucumber, a carton of juice….” And I cried “STOPPPPPP!” I rest my case.]
We need to find a middle ground, somewhere that’s going to keep them well nourished but doesn’t set them in a spotlight as the victim of boho cookery-show-victim parenting.
Why is it so important for children to have a healthy packed lunch?
Word on the street is that only one in a hundred packed lunches meets a child’s nutritional needs. Pretty poor show, rather embarrassing as a nation, we can definitely do better that that. After all, developing brains need quality fuel, they don’t run that well off packets of salty bear-shaped crisps. We owe good health to our kids, it’s fundamental, it underpins everything from growth to brain function to behaviour to their propensity to stay a healthy weight and disease-free throughout their lives. They learn from us and develop their tastes from what we feed them, we should set them up with a fantastic food foundation.
Where to start
It’s best to start right from the off, so if you’ve recently had a baby and are weaning it onto solids feed a variety of tastes and textures. Don’t worry if they spit it out or play with it, that’s what babies do. If they seem not to like something don’t give up, try again. It can take about ten tries for humans to accept a new flavour. Stay calm and unflustered. Eat the same thing yourself and overdo the demonstration of enjoyment. Your child will soak it all up like a sponge and they love to mimic. So yes, get them used to lots of tastes from the word go. This is one reason (amongst many) that breastfeeding is so good. What the mother eats will transfer some of its flavour to her milk, and the baby will experience a variety of tastes rather than the same old homogenised flavour and composition of formula milk.
From then on keep increasing the repertoire, keep it natural and real rather than resorting to commercial snacks and cereals. Let them eat what you eat, just less, eat with them rather than having separate meal times, keep it bright and happy even if they spill their drink over the table every single time. Yep, I’ve got the T shirt for that one!
How school can change your child’s food preferences
So by the time they start school they’ll have a well developed palate and you’ll probably have to fight them for the last olive as well as the last biscuit! This will make your life a bit easier and put your mind at rest nutrition-wise because eating avriety of foods is a good way to get the nutrients we need without stressing the minutiae or popping pills. Well worth doing the groundwork. Oh but hang on..
The only thing is, as I said at the start, children like to be like their peers, so you might find that having cleared you out of sun dried tomatoes at home they now shout “THEY MAKE ME FEEL SICK!!” because having had them in their lunchbox another child will have shouted “THEY MAKE ME FEEL SICK!!” This is what you are now up against. As you see your tiny gourmet’s taste diminish into beige’dom you might feel despair and just start giving in to it for an easy life or even resort to the horror of the modern-day school meal. Don’t. Teaching your child to be a rebel is a life skill, otherwise they’ll go through life feeling they have to order the same as everyone else at restaurants and so on, and they’ll get fat like everyone else too. That’s not to say send them with a great big flask of kale soup and a Sharon fruit but do get them comfy with, and proud of, difference.
Stand your ground here mums, dads and other child bringer-uppers. We can change that one in a hundred healthy packed lunches to ninety or more in a hundred. We can actually change the world.
Children’s packed lunch ideas
OK so the idea is not to overwhelm children with a lunchbox full of non-run-of-the-mill-foods but to weave some in every day, and keep weaving them in even if they keep coming home uneaten for a while. Always remember you are the boss, this is very important. Children will diss stuff to test their power, that’s another thing they do and is good, but *you* hold the power, yes, you do.
I’m going to give you five packed lunch combinations along with several random fun and healthy bits and pieces you can weave in along the way.
- 1-slice sandwich with grated cheese and cress, cut into fingers
- Small ramekin sized container of potato chunks with sweetcorn, kidney beans and peas mixed with a small blob of mayo
- Small pot of carrot and cucumber sticks
- A quarter of a mango cut like a hedgehog
- 1-slice tuna sandwich
- 5-6 pieces of cooked spinach and ricotta tortellini with dressing or pesto
- A few cherry tomatoes, slices of yellow pepper and a few olives
- Small ramekin-sized pot of cheddar and pineapple chunks.
- Egg mayo and cress wrap cut into smaller ‘rolls’ like sushi.
- 2-3 homemade jacket wedges
- A small salad chopped finely – lettuce, cucumber, spring onion, baby tomatoes, peppers, sweetcorn. Little pot of dressing.
- Some pineapple and mango chopped into bitesize pieces.
- A mini wholemeal roll with ham (hurray!) or beef
- A mini samosa or falafel
- Sticks of carrot, mange tout and pepper with hummus
- Small pot of berries
- 1-slice peanut butter and basil sandwich in fingers
- Small pot of couscous with cherry tomatoes, cucumber, spring onion and feta
- Small pot of berries with Greek yoghurt and a tiny pot of honey
- Matchbox square of seedy flapjack
Some ideas to help you add variety. Just try one or two of these at a time.
- Roasted chickpeas (not for the tinies cos choking hazard).
- Cheese and tomato finger toasties, eaten cold.
- Smoked salmon spread with cream cheese and rolled up (very ‘Waitrose’, I know)
- Small lettuce leaves filled with cream cheese and tomato and rolled into wraps
- Vegetable crudites with avocado dip
- A hard boiled egg
- 2-3 mini roast potatoes
- Cooked mini corn on the cobs
- A few pieces of dried fruit
- Slices of homemade burger and a small pot of ketchup
- Crackers and cheese
- Mozzarella balls, baby tomatoes, avocado
- Cheddar and fresh pineapple
- Sun dried tomatoes 🙂
- Toast fingers with healthy dips. Let the toast go cold before slicing into fingers.
- Make their own sandwich – you pack the bread and some fillings and let them do the rest.
How much lunch to give your child
Like adults children vary in size, body type and energy output. So feed your child according to what you know about them. Make the amount of food in their lunchbox match what you would give them on a lunch plate at home. It can be tempting to put extra bits and pieces in because you worry they’ll be hungry, but trust your instinct. They’ll soon be home and if they were hungry they’ll tell you, so you can adjust amounts the next day.
By feeding your child slower release foods they’re far less likely to feel hungry during the afternoon anyway, as they would if they had lots of sweet or refined foods for lunch.
The tendency is for us to think our children need as much food as we do, in fact we’re quite bad at adjusting portion size to suit person size all round! Look at the size of your child and imagine that lunchbox of food in their stomach; does it seem right, too much or too little?
And what about you?!
We all know that being a parent can be full-on and relentless. We love our babes but we get tired, grumpy, stressed and short of time at times. So don’t beat yourself up if you can’t pack the perfect healthy lunch every day, every kid needs a choc bar sometimes or bag of crisps, and so do us adults come to that. Aim for healthy most of the time but not deprivation – and cut yourself some slack, you are doing a great job <3
When you teach your son, you teach your son's son.