Back to lunch

It’s back to school time again. And that means, back to the rollercoaster ride of school lunches. There’s that rush of excitement when you find an empty lunch box at the end of the day or hear happy comments about school canteen lunch. But it’s not always a walk in the fun park. If you have a child starting school for the first time, or you just need some new school year inspiration to balance a nutritious lunch, we’ve got you covered with these five smart strategies.

  1. Strike a healthy balance

    Many parents recognise that healthy eating is important for growth, but did you know that good nutrition is vital for energy levels and brain performance? The nutrients linked to cognition include healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, protein including amino acids such as glutamate, vitamins such as folate, vitamin B12, thiamine, niacin, plus minerals including zinc, iodine, iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium. To strike a healthy balance check out the comprehensive Australian Guide to Healthy Eating on the recommended serve sizes for kids of different ages across the five food groups.

  2. Menu plan to succeed

    If Monday is always cheese and vegemite sandwiches in your family or you go into battle each morning over choices, aim to work out a revolving menu together with your child and stick it on the pantry door, or as a calendar entry or reminder on their phone or smart home device. Empower your child by giving them choice within boundaries and involve them in selection of items.

  3. Take caution with big portions

    Be careful to not overwhelm your child with too much food. Young kids may be better off with mini items, such as two smaller lunch boxes specifying exact items for lunch and snacks, or a snack box and canteen order. Remember to include extra snacks on sport days or for very active kids.

  4. Help your child keep their cool

    When the heat is on, lunchboxes need to be chilled for maximum food safety. In summer go for insulated lunchboxes and always pop in a frozen chiller block. Some perishable items, like yogurts, can be frozen overnight so they are icy but manageable by lunchtime. On very hot days in summer, a canteen order is a smart idea to encourage eating and hydration, by including items straight from the chiller or freezer.

  5. Time treats away from school

    It’s best to try to keep chips, chocolate bars and lollies out of the lunchbox. Treats or ‘discretionary’ foods can be offered after school or at parties, depending on your family’s food approach. When they are offered every day in the lunchbox, they can displace more nutritious foods from a healthy diet and set up competition with classmates. Check out the increasing range of better-for-you snack options available and try non-food treats or incentives to support your child through the day like a surprise note, message written on a banana or a new sticker.

As parents of children at primary, middle and high school, we have combined our years of practical parenting experience to develop these six simple steps for packing a lunch box that ticks the requirement for good nutrition, as well as providing different choices so you can cater to your child’s food preferences.

Step 1 – Add one main sandwich maker or source of nutritious carbohydrates to fuel fitness and maximise brain performance.
Try: Wholegrain bread or rolls, pita pockets, tortilla wraps, grainy crackers, large crisp breads and rice cakes, fruit and muesli bread, English muffins, cheese and vegemite scrolls, pasta, sushi hand rolls, healthy pizza or pumpkin scones.

Step 2 – Add lean meat sandwich filler or alternative for high quality protein to support growth and development.
Try: Roast beef, canned tuna, chickpeas, hard boiled eggs, baked beans, shaved turkey, smoked salmon or sushi, meat balls, felafel, honey and soy chicken drumstick and cold lean lamb cutlet.

Step 3 – Add a dairy serve (or dairy alternative fortified with calcium) for bone building calcium and essential nutrients.
Try: Cheese sticks, slices or cubes, yogurt tubs and tubes, reduced fat flavoured milk, spreadable cream cheese, tzatziki dip, calcium fortified soy drink and fruit cheese.

Did you know?

Research has shown that children who drink flavoured milk are more likely to meet their daily requirements of key nutrients such as calcium, vitamin A and phosphorous, and drinking flavoured milk has no adverse effect on body weight.1

Step 4 – Add fruit and vegetables for fibre, and essential vitamins and minerals.
Try: Avocado, fresh berries, cherry tomatoes, vegetable crudités, celery sticks with cream cheese filling, fruit snack packs, frozen grapes, corn on the cob and tabouli.

Step 5 – Add one or more healthier snacks to sustain energy and concentration.
Try: Air popped popcorn, rice crackers and salsa, protein balls, oat cookies, date loaf, sultana scone, fruit slice biscuits, portion pack of pretzels, grissini sticks and pikelets.

Step 6 – Add the water works for optimal hydration.
Try: Water and milk are the top choices for kids, as they are best for teeth and growing bodies. Freeze half a drink bottle of water, top up with water in the morning, and you’ll have iced water all day.

Did you know?

Studies in school students have shown that many were mildly dehydrated at the beginning of a school day and when they drank supplementary water their short-term memory and verbal abilities improved.2

And our final words of advice…do your homework.

If you have a child starting school for the first time make sure you understand when the recess and lunch breaks are, plus all the food rules.

  • Is your school a nut free zone?

  • Do they have regular fruit and vegetables breaks during class time?

  • Are kids supervised while eating lunch?

  • Is there an ‘eat your sandwich before play’ rule?

  • Is there a no swapping food policy?

  • Does the school encourage green principles, like less plastic wrap and more unpackaged food?


  1. Australian children who drink milk (plain or flavoured) have higher milk and micronutrient intakes but similar body mass index to those who do not drink milk. Fayet F, Ridges LA, Wright JK, Petocz P. Nutr Res 2013.

  2. Effects of drinking supplementary water at school on cognitive performance in children. Fadda R, Rapinett G, Grathwohl D, Parisi M, Fanari R, Calo CM, Schmitt J. Appetite 2012.

This article has been written by the team of Accredited Practising Dietitians at


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