First published Winter 2018


When Child 1 started school last year, Catherine Morgan thought she was free from having to plan at least one lunch for five days a week. But it was not to be, as she soon found out...


When Child 1 came home from school declaring that he “hates” school dinners, I wasn’t particularly overjoyed. It had been rather nice not having to think about lunches for five days of the week, and the fact that it was free was a bonus. The problem was, he wasn’t actually eating the food, and began to become distressed at the mere mention of school dinners.

Now, I’m aware he is only four and relatively new to the whole school thing; it can take time for some children to settle. But the problem is that Child 1 is an exceptionally slow eater, and also easily distracted. With only half an hour or so to eat his food before having to go back in line for play time, it just wasn’t working. He was also overwhelmed — by the mob of children, the noise, the expectations...

So, after a few stressful weeks, we decided to opt for packed lunches (at least for now); which means I have to think up quick and healthy ideas for his lunchbox. Easy, right? Perhaps not.

A 2016 survey of primary school children’s packed lunches showed that just 1.6 per cent of lunchboxes met the nutritional standards set for school meals.1 According to the research, conducted by the University of Leeds, less than a fifth of packed lunches contained any vegetables or salad, more than half contained too many sweet snacks, and few met the standards for vitamin A, iron and zinc. The research was a 10-year follow-up to a previous study which found that only 1.1 per cent of children’s packed lunches met national standards for school food in England2 — meaning that packed lunches have improved by only 0.5 per cent in the last decade.

So what should we be packing if we want to provide a lunch that is both healthy and appealing (and won’t come back half eaten or worse, barely touched)? Registered nutritional therapist and the founder of Lunchbox Doctor, Jenny Tschiesche, recommends using her “six-point plan”, which (to make what can be a stressful activity a bit more fun) she calls “lunchbox bingo”.

Lunchbox bingo

The aim of the game is to create a balanced meal that the child will actually want to eat. The “six-point plan” refers to the following components: carbohydrate, protein, calcium, fruit, vegetable and drink.

“Before the week begins and before anyone goes food shopping, you fill in the weekly lunchbox bingo template [found on her website] and that helps create a lunchbox shopping list,” she says. “Each day there must be at least one portion of each of the six points in the plan.”

Out of a long list of possible foods, examples could include multigrain wraps, rice, wholegrain pasta, new potatoes, or oat flapjacks for carbohydrates. Protein sources could be cold roast meats, cheese and yoghurt, eggs, or dips made from pulses — such as hummus or white bean dip. Calcium can come from dairy products such as yoghurt or cheese, or from non-dairy sources such as a spinach muffin or hummus. Vegetables can be raw crudités or cooked into a vegetable muffin or flapjack. And fruits might be a favourite variety, figs, fruit muffins or flapjacks, or fruit purées to mix into yoghurt. When it comes to drinks, ideally children should have water, although you may like to offer full-fat milk or low-sugar smoothies. 

To save money and improve nutrition, she also believes that we shouldn’t be swayed by labels that claim a product is ‘ideal for lunchboxes’

In Tschiesche’s practice, the two main problems she observes with lunchboxes are insufficient planning and too heavy a reliance on packaged foods. “Planning ahead means the foods available are those your children are most likely to want to eat — especially if they are involved in the decision-making,” she says. “It also means less money is spent and less food wasted.”

To save money and improve nutrition, Tschiesche believes that we shouldn’t be swayed by labels that claim a product is ‘ideal for lunchboxes’, either.

“I urge you to check nutrition labels and compare like with like,” she says. “Most often there’s a larger pack of, say, yoghurt, cheese, crackers, oatcakes that can be decanted in to smaller portions.

“Compare natural Greek yoghurt to sugar-sweetened fruit yoghurts, compare how ‘real’ cheese strings are to a proper block of cheese. And when it comes to cereal bars just look at the number of ingredients... Would you bake something at home with that many ingredients? There is often a far healthier choice than the one being marketed to you as healthy and ideal for lunchboxes.”  

Tschiesche recommends making extra for the evening meal so there are leftovers for lunches — great for saving time and money — and changing the offering regularly. “Just because your child likes tuna, it doesn’t mean he/she wants it every day forever more,” she says.

Duly noted — although, in my defence, it’s Child 1 who demands a daily bog-standard ham sandwich (on wholemeal bread, of course), despite my best efforts to offer up a bit more variety.

Through trial and error, we seem to be on the right track. I’ve even realised that a container/tray showing all of the foods on offer was more conducive to getting him to eat, compared with multiple little pots that were often left untouched. I do keep bringing up the idea of school dinners, but so far it hasn’t gone down well. But I am determined to keep trying; or I will be making two packed lunches when Child 2 starts school later this year. I’m only too aware that what one child has, the other always wants — and that includes a lunchbox.

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  2. Evans CEL et al (2010). A cross-sectional survey of children’s packed lunches in the UK: Food- and nutrient-based results. J Epidemiol Community Health, 64 (11): 977-83.