By Ayse Halil

Preparing healthy school lunches is far from an easy task. It’s very tempting to lather a nut spread on a slice of bread and pack a small juice. Coming up with creative ways to make food interesting and fun each day can be difficult. However, it doesn’t need to be challenging, nor should it take up too much of your time. A nutrient dense, fun and tasty lunchbox requires “some” preparation and a few basic components.

Children of school age are constantly developing; this is a vital time for growth and the food that they eat needs to be able to fuel and aid their development. Children who attend primary school are bundles of energy and there is still significant brain development and building of strong skeletal systems and as such, they require supportive nutrients. Children require a variety of foods to support hormonal changes, increase learning capacity, reduce stress and support physical activity.

Nutrients and Sources Required for Development During School Years
Primary School Years High School Years

Protein: For children of all ages, protein is essential. This should be the basis of all lunchboxes. Protein is the building blocks for muscle development, energy, recovery, brain function and learning.

Food sources are; red meat, poultry, fish, nuts and legumes.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA): Required for brain growth and development, skin, eye and heart health.

EFA’s reduce allergic conditions and inflammation. Food sources are; salmon, cod, tuna, flaxseed, olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, walnuts and sunflower seeds.

Essential Fatty Acids (EFA): Required for skin health (especially for acne), brain function and eye health.

EFA’s are essential across the lifespan.

Fibre: Essential for healthy digestion and bowel health; indirectly assists the immune system and brain health.

Both soluble and insoluble fibre sources are; beans, legumes, nuts, dark green vegetables and fruit.

Magnesium: Required for mental clarity during exams to reduce stress and anxiety. Essential for sleep and recovering after exercise.

Magnesium stabilises mood and is beneficial during hormonal growth periods.

Food sources are; dark green vegetables, fish and almonds.

B-Group vitamins: Required for energy production, gut health and nervous system function.

Food sources are; red meat, beans and legumes, avocado, cereal, wholegrains, asparagus, dark green vegetables, nuts and mushrooms.

B-Group vitamins: Beneficial in times of stress approaching exams or projects.

It is essential in energy production during exercise, nerve function and mental health.  

Calcium: Required for bone strength and muscle development and tooth formation.

Food sources are; broccoli, almonds, green leafy vegetables, eggs, salmon and tahini.

Calcium: Bone development, nerve transmission and muscle contraction; essential for hormone secretion in puberty.

Iron: Required for growth, immune support, oxygen transportation in the bloodstream (needed for energy).

Food sources are; red meat, dark green vegetables, parsley, dried apricots, beans and almonds.

Iron: Important for both males and females, however, iron deficiency can commonly occur in teenage females.

Zinc: In young children it assists the immune system and plays an integral role in taste sensation.

Food sources are; red meat, pumpkin seeds and fish.

Zinc: Aids hormonal secretion, wound healing, muscle generation and nerve function.

All lunches should have a combination of the following:

  • Protein: meat, chicken, tinned fish or beans/legumes.
  • Fibre and EFAs: a small salad with chopped nuts or seeds, raw vegetables, avocado or even sliced fruit of choice.
  • Water: a refillable water bottle that is easy to carry.
  • Snacks: nuts, dried/fresh fruit or a bottled smoothie.

Tips for preparing healthy school lunches

Plan ahead!

  • A simple list of school days and food ideas next to them will save time in the mornings and parents, you won’t feel overwhelmed mid week when the fridge and pantry start looking bare.
  • Prepare a grocery list and place it on the fridge.
  • Make a list of proteins, vegetables and any other essentials you may need, including; nuts, fruits, milk and treats.

Make it in advance

  • Fresh almond milk, baked goods, snack packs, water bottles; anything that needs to be ‘packed’ will save you a lot of time during the week.
  • Bake a tray of banana muffins and freeze them; every night before bed, grab one and leave to defrost. It will be perfect by mid-morning break.
  • Make up snack pack containers of mixed nuts, seeds and dried fruit – five for every school day and that’s another break meal done.
  • Have two or three water bottles on rotation, while one is being used, the other is in the fridge ready for the next day.
  • Make a batch of fresh almond milk or fruit juice and bottle it. You can find small bottles in homewares stores that are light and fit into lunchboxes.

Keep it simple

Let’s be honest, most children are more interested in playtime rather than eating a gourmet lunch; the trick is to keep it simple, flavoursome, filling and packed with nutrients. This requires a main meal and spreading the rest over breaks and possibly an after school snack. Lunchtime is usually broken up into food-time then playtime, so lunches need to be easy to eat. A spoon or fork should be the only utensil your child requires; keeping in mind fruit or raw vegetables should be pre-cut into manageable pieces.

Get children involved!

Think back to when you were little, you ate what was put in front of you right? If it looked bland, chances are you didn’t eat the full amount, or you picked bits and pieces from your plate and left the food you didn’t feel like eating. We all went through it and looking back, it was not the best early food education. It is very important to include children in preparing their lunches and of course other meals too. By exposing children to new foods, tastes and textures, they will develop a broader palate and this will reduce the chance of them becoming ‘picky eaters’.

Start them young by doing simple tasks in the kitchen, for example, stirring a bowl, sifting flour or simply adding ingredients into a bowl; this adds to the excitement of creating a dish and children will be more likely to eat something they helped make. As they get older, encourage children to add their own spin on certain dishes; it might be adding a new ingredient to a family favourite, or they might surprise you and create a Masterchef worthy plate of food.

Exploring markets and buying fresh produce is a great way to include children in the preparation process; meeting growers, feeling and smelling different ingredients is a fantastic way for children to learn where food comes from and how to cook new vegetables.

Primary-aged children are exposed to many different attitudes at school. A healthy relationship with food is important, as it lays the foundation for life. Early education in nutritious foods lays down the groundwork for a lifetime of healthy living – the saying ‘food is medicine’ means more now than it ever did; fresh, organic, “vital” food is the best chance for a healthy sustainable lifestyle.

Easy Lunchbox Ideas

  • Coconut yoghurt with some fresh berries and chopped almonds
  • Seed crackers with a homemade beetroot dip
  • Quinoa salad made with leftover roasted vegetables and fresh spinach
  • Mountain bread wraps with chicken, tomato, avocado, cucumber and tahini
  • Homemade rice paper rolls with leftover roast beef, tomato, green beans and chutney
  • Banana muffins, sweet potato brownies, peeled mandarins, kiwi fruit, fresh berries all add fibre and are great treats.

Here are two simple recipes to add nutrient value to any lunchbox.

Berry-berry smoothie

 HealthyLunchboxes inner


  • 1 cup frozen organic mixed berries
  • ½ banana
  • 1 kiwi, chopped
  • 1 cup almond milk


Place all ingredients into a blender. Whiz until combined, keep chilled. This can be made in advance and bottled to last up to 2 days.

Beetroot Dip


  • 2 beetroot, cut into bite-sized chunks
  • 2 carrots, halved
  • 1 clove garlic
  • ½ teaspoon nutmeg
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste


Steam beetroot and carrot until tender. In the last 5 minutes of steaming, add the clove of garlic; so it’s not completely raw. Place the vegetables into a bowl and let them cool. Once cooled, place the vegetables, garlic, nutmeg and 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a blender. Blend to a smooth consistency; add more oil if required. Add salt and pepper to taste.