How to pack a healthy lunchbox

Feb 1 2023

The snack aisle at the supermarket is a minefield when it comes to healthy vs ‘fake healthy’ convenience foods.  

Dr Rachel Sutherland from HMRI’s Population Health Research Program says there are plenty of good choices for a healthy, nutritious packed lunch – you just need to know what they are.  

In this Q&A, she shares her advice for making better lunchbox choices.  


What are some of the worst offenders in terms of lunchbox items?  

One very misleading item is fruit drinks.  

Fruit drinks are normally packaged in conveniently sized poppers which are easy to add into your child’s lunchbox. These often contain little to no real fruit juice and high amounts of added sugar.  

Fruit drinks also have a high glycaemic index, meaning that your child may get a big spurt of energy but then crash and feel fatigued not long after.  

This can then affect their behaviour and performance at school.  

Other ‘sometimes’ snacks that are commonly creeping into lunchboxes everyday include chips or crisps, and sweet biscuits and cakes.  

These foods fall outside of the Australian Dietary Guidelines and should be consumed occasionally rather than every day at school. 


Healthy Lunchbox Snacks

What are some of the best things you can pack in a lunchbox? 

When packing a lunchbox, aim to choose a recess and a main lunch item from foods that align to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.

The Australian guide to healthy eating is a food selection guide which visually represents the proportion of the five food groups recommended for consumption each day. Source: National Health and Medical Research Council

This simple eating guide contains five core food groups: 

  • Vegetables (tomato, lettuce, carrot sticks, chickpeas) 
  • Fruits (apple, banana, strawberries) 
  • Dairy and/or alternatives (yoghurt, cheese, milk) 
  • Meats and/or alternatives (chicken, tuna, eggs, baked beans) 
  • Wholegrain breads and cereals (bread, popcorn, pikelets) 

Don’t forget to also include something for vegetable and fruit break to keep the concentration and energy levels up. Plus, plenty of water to stay hydrated. 

Aim to include a variety of foods from each food group as they each provide key nutrients.  


"One of our favourite combos is a multigrain wrap with lettuce, tomato, cheese and chicken paired with a small tub of yoghurt and berries." 


Extra vegetables such as cherry tomatoes or a carrot for vegetable and fruit break completes the healthy lunchbox. 


What are the food safety issues to be aware of around packed lunches? 

Food safety can be an issue, especially in our warm summer months.  

Parents report food safety concerns as one of their biggest barriers to packing healthy lunchbox items that kids love.  

It is important to ensure all perishable foods are kept cool throughout the school day. The risk of food poisoning increases the longer food is within the danger zone (>5°C and <60°C).  

How to keep your child’s food cold: 

  • Use an insulated lunch box with an ice brick 
  • Freeze water bottles or low fat milk poppers to use as lunchbox ice bricks 
  • Keep the lunchbox in the fridge until you are ready to go to school 
  • Use frozen bread to make a sandwich – it keeps the lunchbox cool and defrosts by lunch  


Although any food can spoil, some food options that are low risk include: 

  • Wholegrain crackers 
  • Rice crackers 
  • Yoghurt 
  • Canned baked beans 
  • Dried fava beans or chickpeas 
  • Popcorn  


How can you make a packed lunch more appealing to kids? 

Variety is great and can make lunchtimes more interesting, but it really comes down to personal preference.  

Whether the lunchbox constantly changes or remains the same every day, the most important thing to aim for is choosing foods that align to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.  

These foods help children concentrate and learn so they can thrive at school. They also enhance their health and overall wellbeing.  

When trying to incorporate more foods from the five core food groups into a lunchbox you can also try to make it fun and appealing. Some ideas to include may be: 

  • Slip a little personal note into the lunchbox 
  • Add fun stickers to food such as yoghurt or fruit   
  • Present food in interesting ways – a simple idea is to cut sandwiches in different ways  
  • Involve your children in the preparation of the food so they can choose how they want to chop it or which container to put it in. 


What about canteen orders? Are these OK?  

Our SWAP IT research has shown that the majority of food consumed by children comes from lunchboxes, with more than 86% of children having a packed lunchbox every day.  

However, tuckshop or canteen orders can be fun for children and can often encourage children to try new foods.

The good news is that the NSW government has strategies in place to help promote the sale of healthier food and drinks via the school canteen.  

Aim to choose the everyday options from the school canteen menu to build a healthy lunchbox. By including more everyday foods from the five core food groups, you can ensure that the majority of your child’s intake is coming from nutritious foods.  


Are there any easy swaps you can suggest?  

Our SWAP IT program has a swap suggestion for any food you can think of. Some of common swap suggestions include:  

  • Savoury swaps: Instead of chips, crisps, pretzels or flavoured biscuits try plain popcorn, rice crackers, vegetable-based dips, roasted fava beans or chickpeas 
  • Sweet swaps: Instead of roll-ups, fruit sticks, sticky muesli bars, sweet biscuits, cakes or muffins try fresh fruit, fruit in natural juices, fruit buns, scones, pikelets, plain or fruit yoghurt.   


Easy Healthy Lunch Ideas for School

Do you have any hacks for minimising the hassle of packing kid’s lunches?  

It can be hard to find the time to make healthy school snacks or lunches but there are easy, simple lunchbox ideas that don’t take too much time or fuss. 

Some simple hacks to reduce time and effort are:  

  1. Prepare ahead of time
    This might mean boiling half a dozen eggs on a Sunday or chopping up extra vegetables at dinner so they are ready for the lunchbox the next day.
  2. Choosing no prep food options
    This may include cherry tomatoes, baby cucumbers, fresh fruit, small yoghurt tubs, cheese sticks, individually packaged rice crackers or popcorn.  
  3. Pre-freezing foods
    By pre-freezing foods such as fruit buns, pikelets, vegetable and egg cups or slices you can account for those busy mornings or stressful weeks where you might have nothing available for the lunchboxes.  
  4. Have Options
    Buy a variety of healthy lunchbox items in the weekly shop and then get the kids involved and packing their own.  


With almost a half of a child’s daily food intake occurring at school, the foods children consume at school really does matter.  

Not only does healthy lunchbox food help children to concentrate, learn and thrive at school academically, it also supports their health and wellbeing.  

Our research shows that 40% of the foods packed inside lunchboxes comes from discretionary foods - those that fall outside of the Australian guide to Healthy Eating.  

Swapping out discretionary foods and replacing them with everyday foods aligned to the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating, ensure children are better prepared to learn and play. 

Find out more about healthy lunchbox swaps here: