The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch

11 min read
The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch

This post is brought to you by our friends at Woolworths

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch

Grains, Protein, Fruit, Veg, Dairy. These are the ingredients for the ‘Perfect’ lunch box. We sat down with a nutritionist to ask all the hard questions about what makes a healthy school lunch!

As parents or carers, we are constantly under pressure to ensure that our children have a varied and healthy lunch that is perfectly chilled to perfection and is low in fat, sugar and salt. But getting that combination right can be downright confusing!

This Ultimate Guide to Healthy School Lunches will make it easy for you to choose healthy options, with loads of alternatives so that your child never gets bored with their lunches!

How to Pack a Healthy and Sustainable School Lunch:

Did you know that more than half of items in school bins come from food packaging brought from home?

Choose foods that create less waste and minimise use of single-use plastics. Eliminate the need for portion packing and wrapping by using rubbish free lunch boxes

Ideas for a More Sustainable Lunch Box:

  • Swap Cling wrap and zip lock bags for reusable containers.
  • Disposable drink receptacles for durable drink bottles.
  • Use reusable bags when shopping
  • Try reusable food wraps such as beeswax wraps or reusable durable zip lock bags.
  • Choose foods that create less waste to minimise use of single-use plastics.
  • Avoid overloading the lunchbox with food that won’t be eaten.
  • Use a sandwich box to keep sandwiches fresh and intact.
  • Choose fruit and vegetables with their own natural packaging.

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch | Stay at Home Mum

How You Can Give Them a Healthy Lunch and Still Have Time for YOU!

Here is what to do if you want to be super-prepared for the new school term. Start thinking about doing some cooking or baking for school lunches or buying healthy options pre-packaged foods that you can freeze and pop them into the lunch boxes on school mornings.

I’ve been freezing sandwiches, muffins and yoghurt for my boy’s school lunches for years now. Many people don’t agree with that but that’s totally okay. For me, it is a lifesaver! I don’t have a lot of time and mornings are just totally nuts. With sandwiches and bread rolls, I highly recommend you freeze them the Sunday night just before the school week begins.

Fruits that Freeze Well:

Fruits are nearly the perfect food because they are naturally sweet and kids love them. Many fruits can be frozen and they become a sweet frozen treat. If you want to look at freezing fruit for school lunches – we recommend:

Pop the fruit into a snack sized zip lock bag and pop in the freezer. Place them frozen in the lunch box in the morning!

Freezable Muffins:

Oh Muffins, how I love thee! Muffins are great to freeze, and a great way to sneak lots of goodness into fussy kids bellies! To freeze muffins, cook according to the directions, allow them to cool totally to room temperature, then pop them into a ziplock bag (try and get as much air out of the bag as possible to avoid freezer burn). Muffins can be frozen for up to two months!

A healthy school lunch | Stay At Home Mum

Freezable Sandwiches:

Freezing sandwiches or bread rolls is a great way to save loads of time when you need to get out of the house quickly in the mornings. Provided the bread is fresh and the item is sealed well before freezing, they will taste fresh when they defrost in time for lunch.

Fillings that Work GREAT:

  • Meats such as canned salmon and tuna, cooked chicken (chopped), ham, roast beef, roast pork, turkey, salami, meatballs.
  • Peanut Butter and most nut butters Butter* (firm though not melted or it will make the bread soggy) *Check your school’s nut policy.
  • Cream cheese Grated cheese cheese slices don’t work so well so if you want to freeze it, grate it first!
  • Mayonnaise, Pickles, chutneys and relishes Sundried tomatoes (chop finely first)
  • Vegemite

Any of the above ingredients work well to be combined. For example, you could have a corned beef, cheese and pickles sandwich or a chicken and mayonnaise sandwich. However condiments such as mayonnaise can make the bread soggy before freezing, so create your sandwich with the wettest ingredients on the inside!

How to Get Kids to Eat Their Lunches:

It is all well and good to provide the ‘Perfect’ healthy lunch box for kids – but will they eat them? You still need to work within your child’s likes and dislikes to get that right balance of good food.

Some tips to help get your kids involved include:

  • Talk to your children about what they would like to have in their lunchbox. Discuss healthier food and drink choices and decide what will be in the lunchbox together.
  • Plan a shopping list together. Take your children shopping with you and let them see the variety of healthy foods on offer.
  • Encourage your children to help prepare their lunchboxes. Older children may be able to prepare most of their lunch themselves, and younger children can help with making sandwiches or cutting up soft fruit. It is a good idea to prepare lunch boxes the evening before to allow children to participate.

Involving your kids with lunch box preparation helps build their interest in good food. Encourage them to help choose and build their own lunch boxes and let them help them in the kitchen, at the shops and even in the garden.”‹

bigstock Lunch Box With Vegetables And 235890970 | Stay at Home

Finally, Saving Money and Time on School Lunches

Here are my top tips on saving money and time on school lunches:

Look Out for Sales

Look out on the Woolworths website for sales on school lunch items and buy in bulk.

Items that are perishable can many times be frozen.  If you struggle to get to the store on a regular basis, shop online and have your order delivered (it is a GOD send for me!) or order online and pick up.

Prevent Wastage

The best way to save money on school lunches is to prevent waste.  That means not over-catering to your child, and providing items in the lunch box that know that your child will eat.  Doing away with disposable plastics in the lunch box is another great way to save money – and the environment.

Buy in Season

Ensure you buy fruit and vegetables that are in season – seasonal fruit and vegetables not only taste better, they are cheaper!

What is a healthy school lunch?

A healthy lunchbox has five components:

  • One serving of protein
  • Three servings of fruit and vegetables
  • Two servings of Grains
  • A drink. A bottle of tap water is best, and fruit juice or flavoured milk should be only sometimes.

This will ensure that your child is receiving adequate nutrition from various food groups during the day.

The most common ingredient of a school lunch box is sandwiches, wraps or rolls, but this can get boring for children at times. We will show you alternatives that still ensure they get adequate nutrition.

  • Use a variety of fillings to keep children interested.
  • Encourage children to drink water throughout the day.
  • Limit foods with added sugar, added salt and those high in saturated fat.

Look for the Health Star Rating

In Australia we have the Health Star Rating system which is a government initiative that helps us parents choose the healthiest option possible when comparing a packaged product to other similar packaged products. The Health Star Rating is helpful as often nutritional panels are confusing and time consuming to read and analyze.

The Health Star Rating provides ratings from 1/2 star through to five stars. The higher the star rating, the healthier the choice within that category. The ratings are based on kilojoules, level of saturated fat, salt and sugar content. It also takes into consideration the fibre content and protein.

If you want to read more about the Health Star Rating and how they are applied, check out the Health Star Rating website.

A healthy school lunch | Stay At Home Mum

Choosing Two Servings of Grains:

Whole grains and cereals are filling, particularly whole grain options, which have all the original three layers of grain intact. It is recommended that kids get four serves of grains per day – so two serves in a lunch box is a good number to aim for.

Examples of Grains and their serving sizes include:

  • 1 x Bread slice (choose wholemeal or wholegrain)
  • 1/2 medium sized Bread Roll (wholegrain)
  • 1 x Wrap (choose wholemeal or wholegrain wraps)
  • 1/2 cup cooked wholemeal pasta or rice

But to make things interesting grain wise – other grain options include:

  • Muesli Bars
  • Small fruit muffin
  • Freshly made vegetable or tuna sushi
  • Rice or Pasta Salads
  • Rice Cakes
  • Chicken or Tuna and Vegetable Rice Paper Rolls
  • Veggie Fried Rice
  • Slices of Fruit Toast
  • English Muffins
  • Macro Lentil Bites

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch | Stay at Home Mum

Next, Add Lean Protein:

This group of products includes all kinds of lean meat and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds and legumes/beans. Kids aged up to eight years old should have 1.5 serves of protein daily, children older than nine need 2.5 serves per day.

Ideas for protein include:

  • 2 x Hard Boiled Eggs
  • Peanut Butter (Check with your school for the nut policy, our school is “nut aware”)
  • 80 grams Chicken
  • 1 x small tin of Tuna or Salmon
  • 3 x Falafels
  • Slices of Turkey
  • 1 tablespoon Hummus
  • 1 cup Baked Beans
  • 3/4 cup Roasted Chick Peas

Jimny 13 | Stay at Home


Next Add Three Servings of Fruit and Vegetables:

You should include three servings of variously coloured fruit and vegetables serves in your child’ lunch box. Preferably one serving of fruit, and two servings of vegetables. An easy way to do that is to include a salad or fruit salad with loads of colour and textures.

To make fruit and vegetables more interesting – try the following ideas!

  • Celery Sticks filled with hummus and topped with sultanas
  • Zucchini Slice combines both protein and vegetables
  • Cherry Tomatoes with bocconcini and a leaf of basil on a toothpick
  • Apple Slices topped with cottage cheese and cinnamon
  • 1 cup of diced or canned fruit (with no added sugar)

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch | Stay at Home Mum

Then the Dairy:

Milk, yoghurt or cheese (you can use reduced-fat options for children over the age of two years). For children who cannot tolerate milk products, offer appropriate alternatives like calcium fortified soy or rice drink or soy yoghurt, but they can also get their calcium from foods such as tofu or pink salmon.

Boys aged up to eight years old should consume two serves of dairy per day. Boys older than nine should have from 2.5 serves to 2.5 serves per day.  Girls up to eight years should have 1.5 serves of dairy or over nine 3.5 serves. (Source)

Ideas to include dairy in the school lunch box include:

  • 2 x Cheese slices, or 4 x cubes or 1 x cheese stick
  • 125ml Low Fat Milk
  • 200 grams Yogurt, natural or fruit yogurt. You can freeze the small pouches of yogurt and then just pop them into the lunch box in the morning!
  • 1/2 cup Ricotta Cheese (served on slices of apple is just delicious)
  • 100 grams firm Tofu
  • Fruit Smoothies served in a thermos are a delicious way to get dairy and fruit in one hit!

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch | Stay at Home Mum

Lastly, Drinks:

The healthiest drink you can include in your child’s lunch box is water! Fruit juices and flavoured milk are a “sometimes treats” as they do contain a lot of sugar.

Avoid sports drinks, vitamin waters, iced teas and energy drinks.

The reason drinks are usually so sugar laden is the serving size. Think about it – a large chocolate milk is often 500ml or more – that is quite a few ‘servings’.  Whereas the recommended serving size for fruit juice or flavoured milk is only 125ml (1/2 cup).

So if your child insists on a non-water based drink, look for the right serving size, and also the highest Health Star Rating you can find (remember the Health Star Rating is the healthiest choice as compared to other similar products!).

We recommend the following with a 4.5 health star rating or higher:

The Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Healthier School Lunch | Stay at Home Mum

So this is our Ultimate Guide on School Lunches!

Got anything to add?  Let us know!

A healthy school lunch | Stay At Home Mum

Jody Allen
About Author

Jody Allen

Jody Allen is the founder of Stay at Home Mum. Jody is a five-time published author with Penguin Random House and is the current Suzuki Queensland Amb...Read Moreassador. Read Less

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