Tips for sending kids back to school with a healthy lunchbox

Tips for sending kids back to school with a healthy lunchbox

It might still be summertime fun but it always helps to plan ahead for the new term. Healthy and nutritious food is so important to fuel your kids through the school day. Senior Nutritionist from the National Dairy Council, Dr Marianne Walsh, provides some helpful advice and tips.

“There’s a lot of new things to get used to at the start of the term, ranging from new subjects to possibly a new teacher, classroom or friends,” says Dr Walsh. “It’s ideal if you can experiment at home with lunch ideas and to introduce some new flavours and textures during August, before school starts - or at home during the weekends.  This means children are not coping with new foods on top of everything else at the start of the term in the classroom, but it also means they feel part of the planning and preparation.”


Children may want the cakes, biscuits and crisps in their lunchbox but it’s really important to start them on a journey of healthy eating early. Weight is still an issue for Irish children, research from the Department of Health (September 2016)1 shows that that one in four children is either overweight or obese and the European Congress on Obesity (2015) 2 notes that 27.5% of children in Ireland under the age of five are overweight or obese, making children in Ireland the heaviest in Europe. The best way to manage this is to watch portion sizes, and ensure a good balance of varied foods in the diet. 

Don’t forget that a school lunch is one of your child’s three meals a day. Typically, a packed school lunch should contain all of the major food groups, some guidelines below:

• 1 portion of starchy carbohydrate (e.g. wholegrain breads, pittas and wraps, brown rice/pasta)

• 1 portion of meat or meat alternative (e.g. chicken, fish, egg, pulses)

• 1 portion of dairy (e.g. yogurt, cheese)

• 1 or more portion of vegetable (e.g. carrot sticks, peppers, sweetcorn, lettuce, onion)

• 1 or more portion of fruit (e.g. apple, orange, banana, pear, kiwi)

• A drink of water and/or milk 



If a child favours a particular type of food or sandwich it is easy to fall into a routine of providing that as a ‘dependable reliable’ all of the time. They may become bored with that food and could even grow to dislike it because they have it so often.    

Including variety in sandwiches can be challenging, especially five days a week. Using different types of bread can help to prevent boredom - such as pitta bread, wraps and bread rolls. Try to opt for wholegrain varieties where possible and vary sandwich fillings from day to day using fresh ingredients and avoiding processed options. Preparing lunches in interesting shapes and colourful lunchboxes can make lunchtime more appealing.



“Unfortunately, national surveys have shown us that 37% of Irish girls and 28% of Irish boys aged from 5 –12 years of age don’t get enough calcium in their diet; while  42% of teenage girls and 23% of teenage boys have insufficient calcium intakes,” says Dr Walsh. “This is worrying because children and young adolescents are going through really important phases of bone growth and development,” says Dr Walsh.

 The Department of Health advice of 3 servings from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group each day for those aged 5 years and up; with 5 servings recommended for 9-18-year olds due to the importance of calcium during this life stage. Not only is dairy an excellent source of calcium, it also provides a wide range of important nutrients your child needs such as protein, iodine and B vitamins.

Help your child boost their calcium intake with these lunchbox ideas:

• a container/mini-carton of milk (200ml)

• a pot of yogurt, homemade smoothie or rice pudding

• a matchbox-size (25 g) piece of cheese such as cheddar, edam or gouda. 

You may like to check if your child’s school is registered with the School Milk Scheme, which is a convenient and affordable way to help your child meet the recommended intake from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group. 

The National Dairy Council has produced ‘Nutrition & You’ booklets for Children and Teenagers, which are endorsed by the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI). These booklets provide tailored information across a variety of topics such as: healthy eating; keeping active; body weight; lunchbox tips; bone and dental health. These are available download for free at – enquiries to    

The NDC has also developed educational initiatives to help primary school children and teenagers learn about healthy eating, keeping active and the nutritional importance of dairy foods – ask about the Moo Crew for primary schools (; and the HealthFest event for secondary schools (