Updated: Sep 11, 2021
So it looks like the ‘Packed Lunch’ has been catapulted to the forefront of our minds this week, as the realisation that making one everyday, particularly for picky primary school age kids, could simply be a challenge too far. We can all do one or two versions of something approaching a balanced meal, but every day? 5 days a week? WTAF?
Here are a few thoughts on the subject, along with some must do’s, the odd must-not-do and hopefully some helpful suggestions. Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to contribute more suggestions ideas and alternatives. I’ll do a follow up to this in a week or two and see how we'er all getting along!
Hack number one is not to leave it all til 8am every morning and then panic throw random items into a bag/sandwich/thermos and hope your kid just gets on with it, though that can of course work if you’ve just been to Sainsburys. Too many bits and pieces in packets will quickly become tiresomely expensive, as well as being sub-optimal nutritionally and (literally) rubbish for the planet.
As with all these things, a bit of planing ahead goes a long way, as do a few conversations with your child about what they may actually want or not want, what they are prepared to try etc. It might work to have a sort of packed-lunch weekly-planner-thing stuck to your fridge, but by and large if you’re thinking a couple of days ahead, you’ll probably come out of this smiling.
You’ll probably want to sort out the tupperware drawer too - kids like little pots of things like chopped fruit, cucumber or carrot sticks, hummus etc so you’ll need tons of those - along with a decent clip-down sandwich box and a wide necked thermos for hot foods. Try and reuse as much as possible - wax wraps are better than cling film, sandwich boxes are better than bags etc.
The main food groups are of course starchy carbs (bread, pasta etc) and non-starchy or ‘green’ carbs (veg, fruit), protein foods (meat, fish, dairy, eggs, lentils/chickpeas etc), and healthy fats (olive oil, seeds, avocado, oily fish etc).
Carbs are the body’s main source of energy, with fruits and veg being additionally vitamin and fibre rich. Proteins help build and repair muscle and fats are good for the brain, as well as being another source of energy. Brown/whole wheat carbs are generally better than white because they are higher in fibre, protein and B vitamins and release energy more slowly. It’s important to remember, however, that when carbs are combined with protein, you feel fuller for longer, and the release of energy is much slower and more efficient, so always marry the two together.
Bread is the easiest starchy carb of course, and fillings such as egg mayo, hummus, tuna, cheese, salami, chicken or ham, with lettuce or baby spinach can be simple option. Add in a pot of carrot sticks or mange tout, and a tangerine and you’ve done it.
For other combinations, try choosing one or more from each of these lists with your kids and see if you can all agree. Some are obviously cold combos, others (such as meatballs) can be cooked before and then reheated and added to a wide necked Thermos pot on the day:
Choose a Starchy Carb:
Pitta Bread * Seeded Wrap * Wholemeal Roll * Pasta * Rice * Cous Cous * Noodles * Potatoes * Lentils * Beans * Oatcakes *
Choose a Protein:
Cream Cheese * Cheddar Cheese (grated) * Mozzerella balls / slices * Baby Bels * Tuna * Chicken strips * Ham slices * Egg mayo * Salmon * Hummus * Salami * Chorizo * (Cold) Sausages * Felafel * Meatballs * Yoghurt *
Choose a Veg:
Cherry tomatoes * cucumber slices * raw cauliflower florets * mange tout /snow peas * green beans * carrot sticks * olives * avocado (sliced or mashed) * celery sticks * baby spinach leaves * rocket * radishes * peas *
Choose a fruit:
Apple slices * tangerine * melon chunks * fresh pineapple chunks * pomegranate seeds * grapes * strawberries * blueberries * fresh mango slices *
* I don’t advise packing dried fruit as it’s really terrible for kids teeth, especially dried mango, which is very high in sugar and gets stuck!
If you want to give your child/ren something a bit more treaty, say on Fridays, a quick tray bake of simple flapjacks, brownies, carrot cake or similar can be frozen in individual squares fairly easily. Muffins also. Defrost the night before. Xylitol or coconut sugar are great for baking - taste the same, but no sugar rush or dental issues.
For normal days, a pot of yoghurt, or a Frube or similar, is a good source of additional protein and calcium but watch out for the sugar content - some brands are better than others. Always add some fresh fruit - the vitamin C is crucial for their immune systems.
As for fats, pesto is high in olive oil, as is hummus, so they are great choices. Avocados can be tricky, but can work well in a sandwich instead of mayonnaise. Simply buttering a bread roll is a good idea and both cheese and yoghurt of course contain fats. Munchy pumpkin and sunflower seeds in a little pot is worth a try (no nuts obviously) and seeded breads are another way of getting those good fats into your kids diet.
* Peanut butter when you get home is a great source of protein and fats for kids, try it as a dip for celery and apple.
Have a crack at some new combinations - or old forgotten ones! Cheese and Pineapple, whilst retro, is surprisingly good in a little snack pot. Cous cous with cold chicken and pomegranate could work, and of course pasta pesto with a some nice crudités and a little pot of cream cheese.
Leftovers from supper the night before can work really well too, think fish + rice, meatballs + spaghetti, cous cous + felafel, curry + rice. Just reheat in the morning and add to a well warmed Thermos (half fill with boiling water and tip it out just before you need it).
Another alternative is soup. Lots of kids don’t really go for soup, but many love it. Chicken Noodle, Sweet Potato, Minestrone, Lentil Dahl, whatever they like, try them out with a portion in the thermos and then team it up with bread roll and some veg sticks. Great for when the days get colder.
Try and think of the whole days nutrition for your kid(s). For example, if they have cereal or porridge for breakfast, make sure they have a good source of protein for lunch. Likewise, if they’ve had a protein rich cooked breakfast like scrambled egg, or beans on toast, you can afford to go more carby for lunch (pasta, sandwich etc). Cold sausages make a great protein rich addition, (these could of course be veggie) and little felafels also work, especially if you’re into the little pot of hummus idea.
I know not all sounds a bit daunting, but don’t worry! I’m happy to do a 1:1 on this if you’re really dreading it! Just text me on 07779295086 or drop me a line here