Do your back-to-school lunchbox homework

Pink lunchbox with healthy brown bread rolls cheese milk and vegetables
The arrival of the new school year is an excellent time to stop and take a closer look at the food and dietary habits of your children.

The arrival of the new school year is an excellent time to stop and take a closer look at the food and dietary habits of your children.

Whether starting school for the first time, making the transition from primary to secondary school or simply returning to a familiar routine, it is important to ensure they are eating a healthy, balanced diet which meets the nutritional requirements specific for their life-stage.

Here, Dr Catherine Logan, nutrition manager with the National Dairy Council, provides you with advice and guidance to help you establish a positive, healthy diet and lifestyle among the school-goers in your house.


A healthy, balanced diet during childhood and the teenage years is essential for healthy growth and development. The Department of Health’s Food Pyramid, which is aimed at adults and children over the age of five years, provides a guide to healthy eating. While this is a suitable guide for children over five years of age, it is important to note that children’s appetites vary and that they should be allowed to eat according to their own growth and appetite. Smaller children are likely to need smaller servings, which should be increased towards the recommendations in the Food Pyramid as the child asks for more.

Establish a routine around meal patterns: three meals per day, plus snacks as required. While many people perceive snacking as a ‘bad’ habit, it is important to clarify that snacks can actually play an important role in the diet. Foods choices are critical, however. Snack foods should be nutritious and selected in the context of the individual’s overall diet. Some examples may include fresh fruit, yogurt, glass of milk, small wholemeal scone, crackers/crisp bread, dried fruit, bite-size vegetable pieces. Snacks may be particularly relevant to some children who, due to their relatively small body size, may only be able to eat small volumes of food.


Options from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group are popular among children and parents alike. These versatile foods can easily be incorporated into the diet throughout the school day; for example, milk over breakfast cereal in the morning, cheese in sandwiches or pasta salads as part of a healthy lunchbox or a pot of yogurt at break-time.

Moreover, this food group offers a range of nutrients, and is recognised as a particularly important source of calcium which is needed for normal growth and development of bone in children and the maintenance of normal bones. Adolescence is a particularly important life-stage for bone health, as it has been reported that about half an adult’s bone mass is built up during this short time-frame. The Department of Health’s Food Pyramid recommends three servings from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group per day as part of balanced diet, increasing to five daily servings between the ages of 9-18 years due to the importance of calcium during this life-stage. Low-fat options are encouraged, and examples of one serving include 200ml of milk, 125ml of yogurt or 25g of hard cheese.

Vitamin D is also important for bone health and, additionally, contributes to the normal absorption of calcium. Fortified milk, oily fish such as mackerel and salmon, and eggs are among the few dietary sources of this nutrient.

Why not check if your child’s school is registered with the School Milk Scheme? This is a convenient and affordable way to help your child meet their recommended intake from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group. It is also worth noting that the NDC have developed other educational initiatives to help school children and teenagers learn about the nutritional importance of dairy foods – ask about the Moo Crew for primary schools ( and the Milk It Awards for secondary schools (

Activity and lifestyle

National guidelines advise that children and young people should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day. This can include sport, active play and PE, as well as every day activities such as cycling. Additionally, muscle-strengthening, flexibility, and bone-strengthening exercises should be included three times a week.

Lunchbox tips

Children can get bored with school lunches quickly and quite easily. When children start back to school this year, why not develop a positive and exciting approach to the school lunchbox! Try to introduce a variety of foods, encourage a range of tastes and present in an appealing way.

If introducing something for the first time, try it at home first! Perhaps involve your children in making the school lunches, this will encourage them to take an interest in food as well as ensuring the foods they like are included.

Here are some lunchbox ideas (choices and portion sizes should be adapted to suit your child’s specific age and lifestyle):

Lunchbox 1

Small break: mandarin, carton of school milk

Lunch: risotto style salad with sweet corn, peas, broccoli and shredded chicken; cheese cubes; pure unsweetened fruit juice

Lunchbox 2

Small break: apple, carton of school milk

Lunch: pasta salad with chicken/chickpeas; yogurt – natural or fruit; water