The food you put in your child’s lunchbox makes up a significant proportion (somewhere around 30%) of the food they’ll get in a day.
With children commonly consuming food from a lunchbox for at least 13 years, getting off on the right lunchbox foot when they are young is not only good for their health and wellbeing, but will help them understand healthy eating, and set their expectations around what their lunches will/should look like as they grow. It may also help to improve their academic outcomes. That’s right, we now have a systematic review (that’s high-quality evidence) that indicates that a healthy and nutritious diet can enhance concentration and memory and improve academic performance.
But what exactly is a healthy lunchbox?
The good news is that it doesn’t need to be complicated. While home made muffins and chia bars are great lunchbox items, they’re by no means essential. To be healthy, a lunchbox really just needs to be balanced, based on whole foods, and include plenty of colourful fruits & vegetables.
Let’s break this down…
The word ‘balance’ is used a lot in nutrition land. The ‘balance’ we are talking about is the balance (proportion) of foods we eat from each of the five core food groups:
- Veggies & Salad (Official name: Vegetables and legumes/beans)
- Grains (Official name: Grain (cereal) foods)
- Protein (Official name: Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans)
- Dairy (Official name: Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives)
- Fruit (Official name: Fruit. Oh, that’s the same).
A ‘balanced’ lunchbox would contain foods from most of these food groups, ideally in roughly the same proportions that your child needs in a day. Approximately*, this is:
- 1/3 veggies & salad
- 1/3 grains
- 1/3 split between the remaining three groups: protein, fruit and dairy
Of course, a lunchbox doesn’t need to be exact. Children (or adults) don’t need to eat foods from all food groups at every meal. It is their overall intake over time that is important. However, including foods from a range of food groups and keeping this balance in mind as a ‘goal’ of sorts is good lunchbox practice, and will help to make sure they are getting a range of nutrients that will keep them satisfied and energised throughout their day.
*Note: individuals food group and nutrient needs can vary depending on age, gender, activity level and other medical conditions. For individual nutrition advice contact an Accredited Practicing Dietitian, or your GP.
Based on whole foods
Quite simply, whole foods are foods that remain as close to their natural state as possible. They have not been processed (or at least, not much), and contain no artificial ingredients or additives.
Fresh fruits and vegetables are great examples of whole foods. Other examples include lean meats like chicken and fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and milk. Greek yoghurt and grains like rolled oats, barley, etc. can also be considered whole foods as they have only been very minimally processed and – in their pure form – usually contain no artificial additives.
They are the foods are bodies are designed to consume. If you’re not sure whether a food is a ‘whole food’ or not, take a look at the packaging. If the ingredients list is long, or contains ingredients you’re not familiar with, it’s likely processed and not a whole food.
Including mostly whole foods in your child's lunchbox will help make sure they are consuming nutritious foods, and avoiding highly processed foods and artificial ingredients.
Plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables
Different coloured fruits and vegetables tend to contain different vitamins and minerals. So, including a range of different coloured fruits & veggies in your child's lunchbox will help to make sure they are getting a great variety of nutrients each day. Remember the old saying ‘eat a rainbow every day?’, well… this is where that came from. Does this mean you need to run to the shops if you run out of blueberries and can no longer fulfil the blue/indigo/violet shades? Of course not. But there’ll be a better range of nutrients in a ‘brain food’ box containing carrot, tomatoes, olives & cucumber than one containing carrot alone.
‘Great!’ you say. ‘But.. how I put all this into practice?’
How to pack a healthy lunchbox
1. Start with some grains
‘Grain’ foods are a really important source of energy, fibre and vitamins for growing children. In this context ‘grains’ can include foods commonly thought of as ‘carbohydrate’ foods such as pasta, rice, bread and wraps, as well as other grains like barley, couscous and even popcorn. All lunchboxes should include some grain foods. The important thing to know is to choose minimally processed, wholemeal or wholegrain options wherever possible, Refined, white varieties are much more highly processed, which means they contain less nutrients and fibre (therefore less health benefits) and won’t keep your child feeling full for as long, either.
2. Add veggies & salad, and fruit
Many people are surprised to learn that children (4-8 years) need 4.5 serves of vegetables per day to meet all their nutrition needs. Given that most children in Australia don’t consume vegetables at Breakfast, and likely don’t eat a full 4-5 serves (equivalent of 2-2.5 cups of cooked veg, or 5 cups of salad) at dinner, including vegetables in their lunchbox is important to help them get enough vegetables each day.
Aim for 35% of your child's lunchbox to be vegetables.
How? Vegetable sticks (carrot, cucumber, capsicum, etc.) are a classic lunchbox addition, but you can also add salad to sandwiches and wraps, include vegetables in muffins and savoury slices, or try sending some soup in a thermos in the cooler months.
Fruit is also a great addition to a lunchbox. Most kinder/school aged children should be getting between 1.5 – 2 serves of fruit per day. 1 serve of fruit is equivalent to a medium apple / banana / orange, 2 kiwi fruit or small mandarins, or a handful of dried fruit.
3. Tick off protein
Protein is a nutrient, not a food group. The food group that is the best source of protein is the ‘lean meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (beans), tofu, nuts, and seeds’ group (we know… longest name in the world), so to keep it simple we’re saying protein, instead. Protein plays an important role in helping the cells in our body to grow and repair (very important for growing children!), and also help to keep your child feeling fuller for longer through the day.
Adding some tuna, chicken, hummus or egg to sandwiches and wraps, or – if your school allows – a handful of nuts or seeds are easy ways to boost the protein content of your child’s lunchbox.
4. Throw in some dairy
Well, don’t literally throw it in… that would make a mess! But gently place some in, to add some extra protein, calcium and vitamins. And if your child doesn’t consume dairy, there are plenty of dairy alternatives available in supermarkets these days. Look for alternative milks & yoghurts that have at least 120mg calcium per 100mL, to make sure your little one isn’t missing out on this important nutrient. (Thankfully, these days most plant milks meet this. However, it’s always worth checking. For advice on how to accurately read our food labels, see our ‘making sense of food labels’ blog.)
And at the end of the day, remember… it doesn’t have to be perfect all the time. If it all gets too hard one week and jam sandwiches with tiny teddies are your reality… don’t worry, your children will be fine.
Or… you could just stock your freezer with some tasty Audrey & Alfie lunchbox snacks so you’ve always got some nutritious, tasty treats on hand ready to plonk and pack!
Running out of time? Try our top tips for quick, healthy lunchboxes...
Make a plan at the start of the week.
Sitting down with your little people at the start of the week and discussing what might go in their lunchbox that week then shopping for it is a great way of reducing the ‘lunchbox stress’ during the week as the decisions are already made. Involving little people in planning, shopping for and preparing the various components of their lunchbox can also help to given them a sense of agency and independence over what they eat.
Chop your veggie sticks ahead of time.
This is a great time saver! Once chopped, store them in a sealed container in the fridge, covered with a piece of damp paper towel, ready to use throughout the week. Most veggies keep really well – cucumber, carrot, red pepper included.
Make and freeze sandwiches.
Did you know you can freeze sandwiches? Most people don’t realise that sandwiches can easily be made ahead of time and frozen ready for future use. As with everything, they should be stored in an airtight container, and just remember to stack with a little baking paper in between so they don’t stick together. They usually defrost in a couple of hours so you can pop them into lunchboxes straight from the freezer in the morning, and they should be ready to eat by lunchtime.
Let Audrey & Alfie help!
Audrey & Alfie have a range of lunchbox friendly items for exactly this purpose! Nutritious, tasty and healthy treats for your freezer that can go straight into your child's lunchbox. Try our Raspberry Bircher Bites for a filling morning tea, our Veggie Pizza Scrolls for a wholesome lunch with added vegetables, or our Raw Peppermint Chocolate Balls for a feel-good treat.
Our Lunchbox Legends bundle also offers a cost-effective way to sample all our lunchbox products.