School lunch boxes - tips, tricks and musings!

Oh summer, where have you gone? How is it back to school time already? Back to routine, early mornings, uniforms, home work and the dreaded school lunches. Why is it that every parent I talk to hates making  school lunches? Read on for some lunch box tips and tricks…….

I did a little survey on my instagram and found that some of the reasons we parents hate making lunches are as follows :

  • kids don’t eat them

  • it’s boring - not just making them but what goes into them

  • our heads hurt thinking of different things to put into the lunch boxes

  • kids are fussy eaters

  • it’s hard to find the time to make them

And I hear ya! I too hate making school lunches, knowing that as I slice that cucumber, peel carrots or make that beautiful, healthy sandwich, I might as well just pop it straight into the compost and forget about the middle man (or child but middle child just didn’t sound right!)

So let’s have a look at these issues :

  1. Kids don’t eat their lunches - the lunch boxes come back full

You’ve spent half an hour prepping a beautiful, instagrammable lunch box with cucumber flowers, heart shaped sandwiches and colour co-ordinated berries or you’ve chucked a ham and cheese roll and an apple in whatever lunchbox was clean - either way it comes home uneaten and you want to lock yourself in a darkened room and cry bitter, salty tears of frustration. 

But let’s have a think about why the food is coming back uneaten. Is it because they didn’t like what you offered or was it because they weren’t hungry? Or maybe they were distracted, chatting to all their friends or very likely, they didn’t have enough time to eat it.

  • There is no time in the Irish school curriculum currently allocated for eating (Rules 56 - 5 and 6 allow for break time but not eating time per say). They may be allowed a few minutes in class to eat or they may have to take what they can out to the yard and eat it there. This means, in my experience, that if it’s not easily portable (eg. a sandwich and a piece of fruit), then it gets left behind. So bear this is mind when you’re making the lunches.

  • The timing of lunch breaks might also affect what your child eats. If they are eating before going to the yard, which I think is the norm - then maybe ask your school to push eating time back to after yard time. Not only will they be hungrier but they might not be in such a rush to get out to play!

  • When my eldest started school, I remember the school principal talking about lunches and how us parents were giving them enough to feed a team of builders! So this is another reason why food might be coming home - there was simply too much of it in the first place.

  • My wise principal also talked about what the kids were bringing to school and if they could actually get at it. Things like yoghurts, cheese strings and other packaged goods that might be really hard for little fingers to open and tricky lunch boxes that they need help to open. So bear this in mind before you send them off with a fab lunch in that brand new lunchbox that only you can open!

  • There’s all sorts of things going on for kids at school - they might be too busy talking to their friends to eat or they might be anxious about an incident with their friends or an upcoming test after lunch. All these little things might steal your child’s appetite, making them unable or unwilling to eat.

  • And lastly, there’s the peer pressure in class. A child who loves cucumber at home might be sitting next to a child who says “uuugghhh, cucumber - that’s disgusting..” so your cucumber-loving child is not going to eat it now. Or their egg sandwich or rocket and goats cheese wrap or whatever other delicious food your child normally eats at home. So have a chat with your child (maybe not through tears of frustration - that might send the wrong message!) and see what is going on - maybe when you’re out for a walk or chilling in the evening and agree on a solution (maybe they can get extra cucumber at home for example).

2. It’s booorrrinnngggg making the same things over and over and over again or trying to think of new things to make every day. 

Is it groundhog day in your house when it comes to lunchbox making? A ham and cheese sandwich on white bread with a strawberry yoghurt and apple for lunch every day, you have nightmares about it! Here’s a few thoughts and my ultimate tip!

  • it’s not the end of the world if your child does not have the most amazingly nutritious lunch going to school. In order to fuel them, they have to actually eat what you’re providing. If it comes homes uneaten, then all that lovely nutrition is wasted anyway. So give them what they want with slight variations (eg. different fruit/bread/yoghurt etc.) and don’t stress too much

  • if they are not eating their lunch at school offer it to them when they come home. Be aware though, that after sitting in their bag all day, that tuna and sweetcorn sandwich might not be the most appetising.

  • if they’re not eating at school, beef up their breakfast and after school snack. Ditch the sugar-laden cereals and instead offer eggs (you can scramble eggs in the same amount of time it takes to toast bread), porridge with nuts and fruit, a healthy smoothie or a high protein yoghurt like Glenisk with nuts, seeds and fruit. After-school, give them soup and a cheese wrap or hummus and veggies or even have dinner straight away.

  • The lunch box is only one meal in a child’s day and you can make up for the poor quality of it with all the other meals you offer your child during the day.

  • GET YOUR CHILDREN TO MAKE THEIR OWN LUNCHES. This is my ultimate tip and it solves many of the issues you guys have with lunch boxes :

- You don’t have to do it anymore so it’s no longer boring!

- they make what they want and are more likely to eat it - great for fussy eaters

- you don’t need to find the time anymore to make them (just clean up after!)

- and the bonus is it teaches them independence, responsibility and they learn  about food


The key thing here is to only have in the house the food that you are happy for them to eat. Obviously, you don’t want them to go to school with 5 packets of crisps and a family pack of jellies! I generally have things like tinned tuna, chicken salad, eggs, cheese, hummus and wholemeal bread, bagels or wraps available along with veggies, fruit, yoghurt and very occassionally, home-baked muffins or flapjacks available. Someitmes, they might take soup or leftovers but the time to eat these options is an issue.

They pick what they want, make their lunches the night before and I clean up the mess and this makes me very happy! My youngest has been making his own lunch since he was 6 years old. If you don’t think your child can manage just yet, then get them to help you. If you don’t want them to be using knives, get a Kiddies Food Kutter!

3. Having said all that above, it is good to have some variety in the lunch box to avoid food jagging and maximise nutrition.

However, the lunch box is not the time to introduce kids to new foods, especially if they are fussy eaters. This needs to be done at home first, in a relaxed setting, possibly away from the table (food games, food art, sensory food play etc.).

Here’s some simple ways to vary lunch boxes without too much hassle (and remember the kids will be making them so get them involved here too!) :

  • use different breads. If they don’t like wholemeal or wholegrain breads, try making sandwiches with one slice of their favourite bread and one slice of your favourite bread and slowly make changes that way!

  • offer different fruit - get them to choose their fruit by asking them “would you like an apple or orange today?”. Prepped fruit is much more likely to be eaten so peel that orange, chop up some melon or apple - another great job for the kids to do themselves.

  • vary your sandwich fillings - my lot love tuna so sometimes, I add grated carrot or diced cucumber or pepper to the tuna mix - if I get to it before them! I also buy a couple of extra chicken breasts and boil them, (saving the water as chicken stock), chop them and mix with mayonnaise and sweetcorn or cucumber etc. A mix of cheese and hummus is popular and eggs were too until another child made fun of them so now they’re on the after-school menu!

  • prep a selection of veggies at the start of the week - pepper, cucumber, baby tomatoes etc. and let them choose what they want each day.

Lunchboxes are a challenge, I feel your pain. But, hand on heart, the best thing I have ever done is to get my children involved and give them ownership of their own lunch boxes.

Remember, if they are not eating an ideal lunch, you can make up for it in lots of other ways at home. 

May the force be with you as we all start out on this new school year! 

deirdre doyle of the cool food school at healthy birthday party chopping apple.jpg

Top Tip

Get your kids to make their own lunches!