Back to school: Healthy lunch box recipes and tips

children looking at packed lunches

It's a minefield trying to make healthy packed lunches for children - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

As the new term looms over the horizon, the Packed Lunch Challenge joins it as parents try to think outside the lunch box to make eating fun.

When my offspring (now 23 and 20) were at school they were sent home with handy recommendations from the Food Standards Agency in a bid to offer tips to gormless parents like me as to what they should be eating in their packed lunches.

All the list required was a huge amount of forward planning, a limitless supply of cash, several free hours every evening, a trained chef at your beck and call (I have this now, but not then) and an upmarket delicatessen next door.

According to the FSA, for a child aged between nine and 12, an 'ideal' lunchbox would contain falafel and salad in a pitta bread, hummus, peaches in fruit juice, reduced-fat yoghurt and a small carton of apple juice.

I was game. I mummified pitta bread in clingfilm, decanted fruit into containers, sent yoghurt (and occasionally spoons if the children were lucky) and high-fived myself.

That first night, what came home was the stuff of nightmares: disintegrating pittas filled with wet-ashtray-brown gunk, limp salad and some kind of unpleasantly-spiced dust.

Equally, if your children are anything like mine were, the idea of giving them something swimming in liquid and expecting it to have a safe passage to school is like handing them a live grenade with a loose pin.

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By the time mine walked through the gate in the direction of school, the peaches had made an escape bid from the Tupperware and were quietly leaking through every school book, PE kit and uniform within a radius of 100m.

This left the reduced-fat yoghurt. Actually, the children did the job of leaving the yoghurt – probably after opening it and putting it back inside their lunchbox in order to greet you with  a pebble-dashed, rancid school bag at 3.15pm.

In short, the only thing that will be consumed from the lunchbox will be the juice – anything else your child eats will have been bullied out of the weaker kids whose mums let them have mini Swiss rolls and Cheesestrings.

For children aged between five and eight, the FSA menu was even more exacting: a slice of tomato, mozzarella and pastrami ciabatta pizza, carrot sticks, kiwi and strawberry fruit salad, reduced-fat strawberry fromage frais and a bottle of water.

This was not a menu to throw together after a panicked trip to a 24-hour garage in your pyjamas.

Other 'ideal' menus were even more daunting – poppy seed bagels with liver pate and cucumber, lamb, pea and bean samosas, smoked mackerel and potato salad with mushrooms, spring onions and pine nuts, wholemeal muffins with pilchards, cream cheese and cucumber, Quorn and vegetable kebabs: it was like a working mother’s express train to a nervous breakdown.

To be entirely honest, I had one thought when I made packed lunches for my kids: would they eat them? I’d rather they had a peanut butter sandwich and a packet of crisps than ignored my goats' cheese tortellini served with beetroot jelly and saffron tendrils that I’d whipped up in between working and doing absolutely everything else.

The best piece of advice I ever received about packed lunches was when I was told that a child’s nutrition doesn’t rest on what they eat during a few hours at school. They just need fuel for the afternoon.

In the first few weeks of term, lunchtime at school is not the time to be testing your children’s adventurous eating habits.

Instead, try new foods at the weekends and discover new foods they might like and ask if it might be something they’d enjoy at school.

Involve your children in their food and ask them to help you pack their lunches and try some easy wins for lunchboxes with our recipes for muffins, popcorn and cookies (all deceptively healthy!

Easy lunchbox recipes

Cheesy courgette muffins


Makes 12

1 small courgette, grated (you can substitute with sweetcorn or peas)

100g Cheddar cheese, grated

225g self-raising flour

50ml olive oil

175ml semi-skimmed milk

1 egg

Black pepper


1.     Preheat the oven to Gas 6/200C/180C fan

2.     Place 12 muffin cases in a muffin tin.

3.     Put the courgette, the grate cheese, flour, oil and milk in a mixing bowl.

4.     Beat the egg in a small bowl, add some black pepper and then tip into the mixing bowl. Stir until combined.

5.     Divide equally into the muffin cases. Bake for around 20 minutes.

6.     Great in lunchboxes or eaten with soup!

Fruity oat cookies


Makes 18

225g rolled oats

225g plain flour

250g mixed dried fruits, larger ones halved

140g unsalted butter

225g light soft brown sugar

90ml maple syrup

2 tbsp boiling water

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda


1.     Heat the oven to Gas 3/170C/150C fan. Line three large baking trays with non-stick baking paper.

2.     In the bowl, mix the oats, flour and dried fruit with a pinch of salt and set aside.

3.     Put the butter, sugar and maple syrup in a medium saucepan and heat gently until melted. Put to one side as you boil a kettle and mix the boiling water with the bicarbonate of soda in a small bowl and pour the mixture into the butter and sugar mix. It will froth. Stir to combine.

4.     Mix into oat mixture and stir until combined.

5.     Make balls of the mixture – use an ice cream scoop – and put on the lined trays leaving space in between them. Flatten each ball slightly.

6.     Bake for 13 to 15 minutes depending on how chewy you’d like your cookie to be – they set as they cool. Cool for a minute on the tray then transfer to wire racks to cool completely.

Microwave popcorn


Makes three servings

100g unpopped popcorn

1 teaspoon vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste


In a cup or small bowl, mix together the unpopped popcorn and oil. Pour the coated popcorn into a brown paper bag, and sprinkle in the salt. Fold the top of the bag over twice to seal in the ingredients.

Cook in the microwave at full power for 2 1/2 to 3 minutes, or until you hear pauses of about 2 seconds between pops. Carefully open the bag to avoid steam, and pour into a serving bowl. Send in airtight pots to school. 

How to build a brilliant (and healthy) lunch for a school packed lunch

1.     Base the lunchbox on foods like bread, rice, pasta and potatoes – choose wholegrain where you can.

2.     If you have a wholegrain avoider, try making a chessboard sandwich where one slice is white bread and the other is wholemeal or brown.

3.     You can also try bagels, pittas and wraps sent with pots of DIY fillings.

4.     Try to use as little spread as possible in sandwiches and try to avoid mayonnaise.

5.     Great sandwich fillings include lean meats such as chicken or turkey, fish such as salmon or tuna, reduced-fat cream cheese and hard cheese.

6.     Add salad to sandwiches – it all counts towards your child’s five-a-day!

7.     Add cherry tomatoes or sticks of carrot, cucumber, celery and peppers and a small pot of a dip such as hummus.

8.     Try to cut down on crisps by swapping them for plain popcorn or rice cakes instead.

9.     Add bite-size fruit such as chopped apple (add a squeeze of lemon juice to stop it from going brown), peeled satsuma segments, strawberries, blueberries, halved grapes or melon slices.

10.  Dried fruit such as raisins, sultanas and dried apricots are great but should only be eaten at mealtimes to reduce the risk of tooth decay.

11.  Try to swap chocolate, cereal bars and biscuits for malt loaf, fruit teacakes or fruit breads.

12.  Get your children involved in making their lunchboxes: they’re more likely to eat it if they help make it!