Health: How to make the perfect packed lunch now your kids are back at school

wHAT hungry child hasn’t endured the misery of opening their school packed lunch to find a festering egg sandwich inside a claustrophobic plastic container, with an accompanying aroma that reduces the rest of the dining room to cries of 

Or the soggy cheese and tomato roll, albeit made with love around 12 hours earlier, now virtually liquidised after a morning pressed beneath a pair of sweaty gym shoes?

Crisps reduced to crumbs having been crushed by several jotters, banana smeared over last night’s homework, ham sandwiches so painfully boring they make double maths seem 
thrilling . . .

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

Sign up to our public interest bulletins - get the latest news on the Coronavirus

No wonder many of today’s parents can still remember with alarming accuracy some of the horrors of the school packed lunch.

Now there’s an additional concern for parents as they prepare their youngsters’ school lunchbox. No longer is the sole worry whether the lunch can survive intact until it’s time to eat it, we’re now also consumed with fear that the egg and mayo combination is a saturated fat nightmare, the crisps too salty, even the fruit too far-travelled.

Edinburgh-based nutritional therapist Anne Cross says that the lunchbox is a vital ingredient in children’s development, worthy of special attention.

“What we feed children at lunchtime has a direct impact on their energy levels and even their behaviour for the afternoon ahead. Kids burn up a lot of energy playing, if their blood sugar falls too low or gets too high it can affect their behaviour and you end up with tantrums.

“So you are looking for foods that will maintain energy, give them the nutrients they need to grow and that they will 
actually eat.”

Certain foods will also boost their brain power too, helping maximise their learning potential, she adds. “Oily fish, avocado, nuts and seeds – if the school allows them – are good choices,” says Anne. “And complex carbohydrates in wholegrain bread and pitta bread also give the brain a boost.”


Head chef at Café St Honore

and Scottish Chef of the Year 2011

NEIL appreciates the stress of the school packed lunch. With two sons, Oscar, 11 and Louis, seven, to cater for – each with entirely different likes and dislikes – the contents of the lunchbox can become a battle zone.

“One will just about eat anything, the other is incredibly fussy,” he groans. “I sympathise with anyone trying to encourage children to eat a healthy lunch only to find most of it uneaten.”

He suggests filling colourful plastic tubs with various options to keep lunch interesting. “Something like cous cous with peppers and feta cheese is tasty and different. And pasta salads are good, add in little bits of cheese and salami.

“Swap the ham sandwich for chopped up ham and penne pasta with some herbs. Children can be funny about ‘green stuff’ but plant some basil in the garden, let them smell it and get used to it.”

He recommends taking advantage of the huge range of “rustic-style” breads available as an alternative to less healthy white. Or toast pitta bread and stuff it with some leftover Sunday roast lamb, cucumber, tomato and with a portion of cous cous.

Crisps tend to have little nutritional value and high salt levels. Instead, he Neil suggests providing unsalted crisps and encouraging children to throw away the little blue bag of salt. Or swap the less healthy potato versions entirely for tasty vegetable crisps.

Dairy products help build strong teeth and bones but some yogurts are high in sugar, says Neil. “Better to get natural yogurt flavoured with vanilla or honey and mix it up with some peach or grapes,” he adds.

For a treat, Neil recommends home-baked banana cake, muffins or even Sunday pudding leftovers.


Cook book author and director

of Italian deli Valvona and Crolla

MARY, who co-wrote Easy Peasy, a cookery book aimed at junior “chefs”, believes encouraging children to make their own lunchbox can help ensure what goes in actually gets eaten. “Get a small Tupperware box, let them fill it with their favourite things from a selection of choices. It makes them feel more independent,” she says.

A balanced lunchbox should contain some starchy food like bread, potato, rice or pasta, a helping of protein like meat or fish, dairy products and fruit and vegetables. And Mary’s pasta salad covers almost all bases: “It’s easy, boil the pasta until al dente, drain, run it under cold water then cover with some olive oil. Add cucumber, tomato, grated cheese and bits of Frankfurter sausage,” she suggests.

“Fusilli is nice covered with pesto and stored in the fridge until morning then add tomato and mozzarella.”

For something different, tiny quail’s eggs, boiled and added whole to the pasta provide a protein boost and make a quirky change. “Kids love them,” adds the mum of two grown-up daughters.

For an Italian-flavoured lunchbox, Mary suggests using puff pastry 
rolled around a cooked Italian 
sausage for a different take on the normal sausage roll, or cold pizza slices or 
pizza dough stuffed with tomato and cheese.


Duty manager at vegetarian

restaurant and deli, Henderson’s

MUM-OF-ONE Britta serves up healthy lunch options at the vegetarian restaurant and deli every day.

She recommends switching bread for oatcakes, which release energy slowly helping small tummies stay full for longer. “You can then pop in a small portion of hummus or try them with mixed bean pate or lentil and apricot pate for a change.

“Celery is often forgotten about but children seem to like the texture and it’s different from carrot sticks and cucumber for dipping.”

She recommends keeping cream cheese in the fridge as a base for homemade pate or to pop in a wholegrain bread sandwich with some smoked salmon – packed with brain boosting healthy oils.

An unusual choice could be lentil falafels or a slice of lentil loaf with a tomato dip – lentils are a good source of protein and healthy fibre. “Even a small beanburger in a bun with a tomato dip is nice served cold,” she adds.

For a treat, she recommends energy boosting flapjacks – such as fruity apricot and coconut or date versions made without sugar – or simple fruit salads livened up with chopped kiwi, raspberries and strawberries.

Healthy ideas

Michelin star chef Tom Kitchin, of The Kitchin in Commercial Street, Leith, suggests some easy to make, healthy lunchbox options


• Four wholemeal pitta breads cut into bite sized rounds

• 50g sliced mild cheddar

• 50g sliced ham

• Half fresh pineapple cut into chunks


Pre-heat the grill to a medium heat, spread out the pitta rounds on a baking tray and place pineapple, ham and cheddar cheese on each round. Grill until the cheese melts. Serve cold with salad.


• Ten tomatoes (chopped)

• One onion (roughly sliced)

• Two garlic gloves (crushed)

• 10g butter

• 1 tbspn of olive oil

• I tbspn of tomato puree


Heat the oil and butter in a heavy bottomed pan then add the chopped onion and sweat for 4-5 minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes, crushed garlic and tomato puree. Cook gently for 15-20 minutes. Cover in water and add salt and pepper. Cook slowly for 15-20 minutes, blend until smooth.


• Two eggs

• 120g caster sugar

• One courgette grated (8oz)

• 150g plain flour

• 2 tsp baking powder

• 1 tsp vanilla essence

For the icing

• 100g butter

• 125g cream cheese

• 125g icing sugar


Preheat the oven to 180 degrees. Beat the eggs with the caster sugar until light and fluffy. Slowly add the grated courgette, flour, baking powder and vanilla essence until mixed well. Place mixture evenly into cup cake cases, place in the oven and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Make the icing by beating butter, cream cheese and icing sugar together until light and creamy. Once the cup cakes are cool, spoon and smooth icing on top of each cake and sprinkle with grated courgette.

For more recipe ideas, the Scottish Government’s Eat in Season campaign has just launched a mobile phone recipe finder with more than 230 seasonal recipes, including lunchbox options, from leading chefs. Go to for details.


Prawn cocktail crisps

White bread ham sandwich

Mars Bar


Wine gums

“We all like crisps now and again but definitely not every day. They contain fat that the body simply stores.

“White bread is okay now and again, but not the best option.

“There’s too much sugar. The chocolate and drink – which also contains caffeine – will upset energy and blood sugar balance. The sugar rush can often then lead to behaviour problems and tantrums.

“Any nutrients are used up simply trying to process this food.”

Chicken noodles


Carrot sticks

Blueberry muffin


Natural yoghurt

“The chicken has good protein and the noodles provide the carbs.

“Fruit and carrot sticks count towards your five a day.

“The blueberry muffin is a once-a-week treat. Make your own and then you can control how much sugar they contain.

“Natural yoghurt is a better choice than sugary flavoured varieties.

“Be careful with flavoured water. Some can be high in sugar and artificial sweeteners. Plain water is best or flavour water yourself with some apple or orange juice.”

Anne Cross, (0131-333 0792)