A healthy return to school in our lunch box – the why, what and how!

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Why is a healthy lunch box important for children?

A sustaining nutritious lunch:

  • Supports steady growth and development for children
  • Supports their immune system
  • Reduces the risk of chronic disease later in life

It is important to know that:

✔ One in four primary school children are overweight or obese (1). A healthy diet is critical in maintaining a healthy weight and maintaining nutrient balance.
✔ A school lunch should provide 30% of the child’s daily energy and nutrient needs.
✔ Nutrition can affect a child’s behaviour and learning in several ways, including concentration, reasoning, cognitive ability and behaviour (2).

Food Pyramid, published by the Department of Health in December 2016

What to put in the lunch box?

Try and focus on the food groups from the food pyramid, with these lunch suggestions:

  • Variety in foods and colour each day – provides a variety of nutrients.
  • Fruit and vegetables, carbohydrates, and protein – help fuel the body.
  • Stay hydrated with fluids – approx. 200ml is needed, milk or water are best.

Lunch box ideas and portion sizes

Fruit and Vegetables

 At least 1-2 portions

Carbohydrate – fill up on fibre with wholegrain bread, pasta, or rice

At least 1 portion

Protein – meat, fish, beans/pulses, and eggs

At least 1 portion

1 small apple, pear, mandarin, or banana 1-2 slices of wholemeal bread 2 slices of cooked meat – chicken, beef, or turkey (50-75g)
Handful of chopped melon or pineapple 1 small brown bread roll or bagel 1 small can of salmon, mackerel, or sardines (100g)
2 small plums or kiwi 1 wholemeal pitta or wrap 4 tbs of hummus – spread on crackers or as a dip with veg
Handful of mixed veg – carrot sticks, cucumber, cherry tomatoes 4-6 wholemeal crackers or multigrain rice cakes 1 hardboiled egg – on the salad or mashed on bread.
Small cup of vegetable soup 1 cup of cooked brown rice or pasta (leftover!) 2 thumbs of cheese – cheddar or 1 pot of natural yoghurt (125ml)
  • Treats do not provide any good nutrients in a child’s diet, they mainly just contribute unnecessary salt, sugar, and fat.
  • Check the label – If not sure if it is the right choice – the better choices are low salt and sugar.
  • Remember to keep the lunch cool, do not store next to a radiator or in direct sunlight – freeze a carton of juice and place in with food to keep cool. Keep in the fridge until morning if made the night before.

How to engage your child in eating a healthy lunch?

  • Ultimately the child decides what they eat, however the strongest predictor of dietary habits is based on what happens at home – try to be a good role model.
  • Develop a healthy habit –
    • Set boundaries in what is allowed and what is not – no treats and give them a choice from a small range of foods.
    • Develop clear expectations – agree a lunch plan, certain foods for certain days e.g. pick themes Italian – brown pasta etc.
    • Understand what the child needs not wants – is it based on taste, texture, peers, or time provided to eat the lunch.

Key tips for a road to a healthier lunch:

  • A varied diet = varied nutrient intake, which is better for overall health and development.
  • Encourage trying new foods, more exposure is more likely to increase the variety in the lunch options.
  • Get your child involved, set-up a school lunch planner – helps agree the options so the child has an input and sets expectations for the week ahead.
  • Check the lunch box after school, before offering a snack. Keep an eye on what’s coming home and be ready to adapt.
  • Lead by example and make eating healthy a positive experience and set healthy habits for life.
  • A healthy lunch can improve mood, concentration, and performance both academically and physically.
  • Lots of patience will be required!!
  • Avoid the social media picture lunches – make small changes that are sustainable!

Useful resources:

1. Layte R and McCrory C (2011) Growing Up in Ireland National Longitudinal Study of Children: overweight and Obesity among 9 year-olds. Available at: http://www.esri.ie/pubs/BKMNEXT211.pdf
2. Healthy Food Choices in school. Cooperative extension, USDA. https://healthy-food-choices-in-schools.extension.org/3-ways-nutrition-influences-student-learning-potential-and-school-performance/