More than a third of the food our little ones (and not-so-little ones) eat during a day is eaten at school or in early childcare settings, so it’s important to make sure their lunchbox is filled with nutritious foods that will support their growth and development, and fuel them for a day of activity and learning.
Recent studies of kids’ lunches have reported a distinct lack of vegetables (in one study, less than half of preschoolers’ lunches contained veggies), and an increasing amount of ultra-processed foods (around 54% in preschoolers’ lunches). These studies don’t report context behind food choices, so there’s the possibility that some cases may have been a one-off treat, but there’s definitely room for improvement where veggies are concerned!
The first two years of life are a unique window of opportunity for growth and development, and also for establishing healthy eating habits that can carry on into adulthood and impact our little ones’ future health. There is growing evidence linking consumption of ultra-processed foods and lifestyle diseases, so it’s important to reduce our intake of these foods in particular.
Putting together a healthy lunch
A nutritious lunch will provide your little one with the energy they need for a day full of activity and learning. When putting together lunches, it’s important to include all food groups – this helps make sure they’re getting all the nutrients they need for growth and development.
Aim for these core items:
🥗 A main lunch item with plenty of veggies
🥚 A nutritious snack
🍎 A piece of seasonal fruit
💦 Plenty of water
+ an extra snack if your child is particularly active
Here are a few small changes you can make to make your little ones’ lunchboxes more nutritious, and help get them interested in trying new foods:
Swap white bread, wraps or pasta for whole grain alternatives
Swap packaged snacks for healthier options eg. plain popcorn instead of chips, fruit instead of sugary muesli bars.
Choose nutrient-rich foods rather than something that just fills them up with little nutritional value. Add extra veggies to smoothies, porridge, muesli bars, muffins, meatballs - get creative!
Make food fun and more appealing by spiralising, using cookie cutters or giving foods fun names, eg. dinosaur trees (broccoli) or monster milkshake (green smoothie).
Cut fruit + veggies into manageable sizes for small hands, and avoid or cook hard foods for really little ones eg. carrots, apples etc. Cut up grapes, berries, cherry tomatoes etc; and avoid whole nuts + seeds.
Let kids help prepare their lunches - this can increase interest in trying new foods and they're more likely to eat healthy foods they've helped prepare or chosen themselves.
Keep food cool and safe to eat by including a chilly brick, freezing a plain unsweetened yoghurt, or half fill a water bottle and freeze on its side overnight, then fill with cold water in the morning.
Limit ultra-processed foods (and sugary drinks) - these tend to be high in saturated and trans fats, added sugars and salt, and don’t provide the nutrients that kids need for good health and for a day of learning and concentration.
You can also find a handy downloadable sheet with tips on putting together healthier lunches here.