The start of a new school year not only means new uniforms and shiny shoes, for many families September means getting back to the routine of making packed lunches for your little ones. So how do you pack your kids a healthy lunch?

::What’s in your child’s lunchbox?

Around 42 per cent of children in Northern Ireland take a packed lunch to school. A few years ago, The Food Standards Agency carried out a survey of school lunch boxes and found that we are packing our children’s lunches with too much fat, saturated fat, salt and sugar.

If you think that the average kid’s lunchbox contains a white bread sandwich or roll (82 per cent), crisps (69 per cent) and biscuits or chocolate (58 per cent), it is not surprising that a child eats twice the recommended lunchtime intake of saturated fat and sugar, and up to half their daily salt intake in their lunch.

In this survey, only one in five packed lunches contained any vegetables or salad and about half included an item of fruit.

The food your children eat at lunch time needs to work hard to maintain their energy and concentration all afternoon as well as providing them with essential vitamins, minerals, fats, protein and carbohydrate for optimum nutrition so they can grow and thrive.

:: Some healthy lunchbox ideas

Before we get down to specifics, here are the basics of what you need to include to ensure your child is getting a healthy balance:

:: A portion of carbohydrate-based food like a wholemeal roll or bread, wraps, pitta pocket, pasta or rice salad. Choose whole grains instead of white, refined carbohydrate to help maintain and sustain your child’s energy throughout the afternoon. If that is a step too far, then try introducing 50:50 varieties at first.

:: Include a portion of protein to help concentration and energy. Choose meat, chicken, cheese, yoghurt, houmous, fish or eggs.

:: Include at least two of their five portions of fruit and vegetables a day; an apple, a small fruit pot, some salad or carrot sticks, for example.

:: A portion of dairy produce like cheese or a yoghurt.

:: A drink – water is best.

:: Lunchbox ideas

If the start of term fills you with dread at the thought of having to magic up nutritious food for your child’s lunchbox every day, here are a few simple ideas to help inspire you.

:: For a change from sandwiches, try wholemeal pitta pockets packed with chicken or tuna and some vegetables. Tuna, red pepper or grated carrot are usually a hit with kids.

:: Swap crisps for little pots of humous with carrot sticks.

:: Always include at least one vegetable and one piece of fruit. Carrot sticks, sugar-snap peas and cherry tomatoes are good finger foods.

:: For younger children, pack in little boxes of chopped fruit rather than a whole piece of fruit as these can be easier to eat.

:: Pasta, couscous or rice are a good base for salads with tuna, oily fish like salmon or chicken. Add some grated carrot, chopped tomatoes and vegetables for colour and interest, and make enough to do a couple of days.

:: A flask of soup with a wholemeal sandwich is filling and nutritious. Homemade soups are quick and easy to make and can be frozen in portion sizes.

:: Include some low sugar yogurt. If your child does not like natural yogurt, then make sure you check the label for low sugar (that means 5g or less per 100g), but be careful not to include yoghurts containing artificial sweeteners.

:: For drinks, milk or water is best.

Get your kids involved in planning and shopping for school lunches. Talk to them about making healthy choices and get their ideas about what they would like to eat. They may surprise you!

This blog post first appeared as an article in The Irish News on Saturday 1 September 2018.