The lunch guide for back to school: School lunches are not the time to introduce new or disliked foods

‘While it’s perfectly fine to have the same sandwich every day, do try to vary it a little,’ dietitian says

Ask any parent the best thing about the school summer holidays and a considerable number are likely to list “not having to make school lunches” near the top. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as lovingly preparing a healthy lunch for your little darling, only to have it arrive home again, just as it left.

Add into the equation relaxed summer holiday eating habits, and the prospect of finding school lunches the children might find remotely appetising seems like a bigger ask.

“The summer break can mean lazy summer breakfasts, lunch on the go and later dinners,” dietitian Sonja Lynch explains. “Hungry children can tend to snack or graze throughout the day. Likewise, holidays away can lead to more tasty, high-sugar foods and desserts. While ice creams on summer days and cake in nana’s house should be enjoyed without any feelings of guilt, it’s important for young children that they don’t fill up on these foods and aren’t hungry for more nutritious meals. Fruit and vegetables can often be the first food to fall by the wayside.”

School lunches aren’t the time to become adventurous with food for picky eaters

School lunchtime can be a very rushed affair, particularly in primary school, Lynch says. “Therefore, it’s important to provide them with a balanced lunchbox or foods that they will actually eat and enjoy. Instagram-worthy lunchboxes filled with foods your child doesn’t actually enjoy eating will inevitably just end up making the return journey home. Focus instead on foods that are easy to eat quickly, with little effort — peel and chop fruits into large pieces, sandwiches that can be eaten one-handed.”


School lunches are not the time to introduce new or disliked foods, she says. “There are plenty more opportunities for eating at home in a more relaxed and less rushed environment.”

Lynch suggests using the time between now and the return to school to have a conversation with your child about lunch ideas. “Go to the supermarket and look at a variety of different breads they could bring, for example, wraps, pitta pockets, crackers, soda bread, bagels. It’s better to get used to these foods at home before including them in their school lunch. Discuss what foods their friends bring to school — they might surprise you with the sandwich fillings or fruits or vegetables you hadn’t considered yourself.

“While it’s perfectly fine to have the same sandwich every day, do try to vary it a little in the type of bread, spread or sandwich. Otherwise boredom and taste fatigue will set in and the lunch will only be picked on. Children eat with their eyes, so aim to always include a bright, appealing coloured fruit or vegetable.”

Teens have more options when it comes to lunches, Lynch says, but this can bring its own problems. The “variety of choice and often peer pressure can result in them shunning homemade healthy lunchboxes for canteen foods, local takeaways or supermarket deli counters. These foods are not only more expensive but they also tend to be higher in salt, sugar and fat.”

Lynch suggests a compromise. “Maybe, aim to bring a packed lunch three times a week.” She also suggests that parents consider stocking their kitchen “with individually packed snack foods they can grab and throw in their schoolbags — cheese portions, yoghurt drinks, fresh and dried fruit, nuts and nut butters, crackers.”

For those of us with picky eaters, school lunches can prove particularly difficult. But Lynch cautions against making school lunches a battleground. “School lunches aren’t the time to become adventurous with food for picky eaters. Instead, try to include a carbohydrate they like, even if it’s just white slice pan, or crackers. Consider trying different types of bread at the weekend at home instead, and build up to including them in their lunch box. Try to include a source of protein — plain chicken, ham or cheese are often well-tolerated. Yoghurt can be a great option to include… Add in any fruit or vegetable they like.”

Don’t be too tough on yourself as a parent either, Lynch says. “An occasional lunch box with few cream crackers and jam and a box of raisins won’t impact your child’s longer-term health or academic performance.”