Clever lunch ideas for kids have taken social media by storm. But how many of us have the time (or money) to make sandwiches in the shape of cartoon characters, or fill multiple lunchbox compartments with superfoods and organic snacks? At a time when we’re all dealing with the rising cost of living, a packed lunch can be a great way to save money – but only if your child eats the food you’ve provided! Unfortunately, children can be notoriously resistant to eating a packed lunch – which is understandable if they open up their lunchbox to find a limp cheese sandwich, bag of crisps and a bruised banana every day.
“If your kids are coming home with half-eaten soggy sandwiches it could be that their lunch isn’t surviving well in the heat of the classroom, or they may just be bored of the same formula. Just as adults crave novelty when it comes to food, so do many children,” says nutritionist Charlotte Faure Green.
So we asked Charlotte to share her top 10 solutions to what some parents are calling ‘lunchbox anxiety’ – including how to feed fussy eaters, the best ways to keep food fresh, plus some healthy, tasty and fun options to help kids to concentrate, and keep them full until dinner time!
1. Cost-effective lunches
“The most cost-effective way to feed our children (and ourselves) on the go, is by utilising leftovers – so ‘cook once, eat twice’ is key,” explains Charlotte. “The way to make this work is to factor this in when we plan our evening meals. Think about adding an extra portion or two when cooking, or find ways to be clever with leftovers.
“Leftover Sunday roast chicken can be wrapped up with raw vegetables (carrots, cucumber, avocado) and leftover cold rice noodles in (inexpensive) Vietnamese rice paper wrappers for yummy summer rolls. You may have to watch a YouTube video to learn the technique, but it’s worth it as they travel well, and provide a balanced meal for sustained energy.”
2. Feeding fussy eaters
“Catering for a fussy eater out of the home, and away from their safe foods and familiar eating environment, can be incredibly challenging,” says Charlotte. “But often fussy eaters will be a little more adventurous when they’re at school or with friends (they may feel less pressure than under our watchful and hopeful eyes), so try to include a food that takes them out of their comfort zone alongside their familiar favourites – they might surprise you (and themselves) by giving it a go.
“It can help to build a ‘picky lunch’ of the things you know that they will eat including crunchy pretzels and carrot sticks for carbohydrate, hummus, cheddar cheese cut into cubes for protein and fat, and their favourite berries or grapes for a dose of antioxidants. It can also be useful to include elements that can be reused the next day if you suspect they’ll come home untouched.”
3. No more soggy sandwiches!
If your child never eats their sandwiches, it might be worth experimenting with some alternatives.
“Pinwheels, made from pre-made puff pastry rolled up with a variety of vegetables, some tomato paste, some cheese, and a choice of protein, then sliced into rounds and baked in the oven, can give a much-needed twist to lunches, and travel well without getting soggy and sad,” says Charlotte.
“Alternatively, a pasta ‘salad’ is by nature a little soggy, so there’s no need to worry about it spoiling. Anything goes for a cold pasta dish – and you could even use leftovers from the night before.”
4. Invest in flasks and pouches
Investing in a thermos flask can give you lots more options for money-saving lunches, so it’s worth the initial outlay.
“You can take the carcass of a chicken and create a stock, which is the perfect base for soups or a protein-packed dahl, which travel well in a flask,” says Charlotte.
“A bit of time spent prepping elements for lunches on a Sunday can also save money as it means you’re less likely to grab costly pre-packed snacks. Just like the thermos flask, purchasing some refillable puree pouches is an investment, but over time will save you money over costly (and much-loved) yoghurt pouches.”
5. Novelty lunches
“There’s no rule that says lunchboxes should always include sandwiches, even though that’s often our default option” says Charlotte.
“You could try threading vegetarian or meaty sausages, baby tomatoes, pickles and cubes of cheese onto a small wooden skewer. This stops all the different elements from getting sweaty and soggy, and also adds some novelty to your child’s lunch.”
6. Breakfast on the go
“If you’re a parent of a teen, you may miss the days of sitting down with them for breakfast before school,” says Charlotte. “If they’re short of time in the morning you want something balanced and nourishing that you can thrust in their hand as they rush out of the door.
Step in egg frittata muffins! Essentially, these are handheld tiny omelettes, baked into a muffin tin for individual portions, and filled with whatever you might have in the fridge: tomatoes, chopped peppers, cheese, cooked mushroom, ham, leftover broccoli, peas – and add some herbs for flavour! These little protein powerhouses last for days in the fridge, and months in the freezer, and can be easily eaten on the run for the school bus!”
7. Boosting brain power
“It’s unlikely that one singular lunchbox food is going to power up your child’s brain for an afternoon of learning, but ensuring their lunch contains good fats and protein alongside complex carbohydrates is your best bet at sustained brain power throughout the afternoon,” says Charlotte.
“Oats provide a slow-release form of glucose, our brain’s preferred fuel – so including oat cakes as part of a balanced lunch may help them concentrate in the afternoon. Eggs provide the essential nutrient choline, which builds healthy cell membranes and the memory-forming neurotransmitter acetylcholine. If egg sandwiches don’t appeal, a tasty Spanish omelette with onions and potato is cheap to make and easy to transport. Salmon and mackerel are both great sources of essential fatty acids, vital for brain cell preservation. The tinned varieties can be whipped up into an affordable paté/spread for sandwiches or crackers.”
8. Keeping hydrated
“Without adequate water our bodies can feel fatigued and our brains sluggish – not ideal for our children’s expanding minds,” says Charlotte.
“Annoyingly, good hydration is out of our hands when kids aren’t with us, so making it easy for them to get enough water is important! Most schools don’t allow squash, juices or sugary drinks – for good reason – but we can spike our kids’ water with slices of strawberries/oranges/cucumber or mint leaves to add some extra flavour without breaking the rules.
“Smoothies can provide a hit of nutrients as a breaktime snack or part of a balanced lunch. Fruit smoothies can cause blood sugar to spike and drop, which isn’t good for brain focus and concentration. So include some vegetables (a floret of frozen cauliflower provides cruciferous goodness and is undetectable!) and add some seeds for extra protein to balance the carbohydrate energy and keep kids going for longer.”
9. Supercharged snacks
Many schools also have strict rules about snacks, which can make it hard to know what to pack when crisps, biscuits and nuts are off the menu.
“This is where homemade protein balls (or bars) are a great option,” says Charlotte. “There are hundreds of easy recipes online, and you can usually adapt whatever is knocking around in your dry goods cupboard. They’re very portable and have a good balance of nutrients for sustained energy.”
10. Fabulous Fruit
Most kids enjoy fruit, but it’s less appealing if it’s been bumped about in their school bag, only to emerge brown and bruised.
“My favourite lunch hack is to cut an apple into slices then squeeze over some lemon juice to stop it discolouring,” says Charlotte. “Next, reconstruct the slices back into a whole apple shape and use an elastic band to hold them in place. No more browning apple slices, and less chance of it coming back untouched at the end of the school day!”
If your child isn’t keen on apples, grapes and blueberries travel well in a small pot. “Blueberries may also help stimulate the flow of oxygen to the brain, and improve short-term memory,” says Charlotte.
Keep track of your child’s spending with GoHenry
As children get older and gain more independence, it’s likely they’ll travel to-and-from school with friends – and stop off for snacks on the way. A GoHenry prepaid debit card for kids makes it easy for them to pay for after-school hot chocolate with friends, and you’ll receive a spending notification every time they use their card – so you’ll know if they’ve been eating chips before dinner!
Charlotte Faure Green is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, speaker, writer, and brand nutritional advisor. She provides one-to-one expert guidance both online and in person at her Brighton clinic. You can find her on Instagram @charlottefauregreennutrition or contact her through her website at charlottefauregreen.com.