Should parents really be worried about the 'healthiest' lunch box?

Victoria University researchers are supporting parents, with advice to take the pressure off making the ‘perfect’ school lunch.
Monday 29 January 2024

With school back this week, Victoria University (VU) researchers are supporting parents, with advice to take the pressure off making the ‘perfect’ school lunch, while still helping children develop a positive relationship with food.

VU Associate Professor Helen McCarthy worked as a clinical paediatric dietitian with many families for over 20 years. She says there is often too much pressure on parents to make perfect meals and lunch boxes.

“Most parents are doing a great job at offering a variety of food options to their kids.  However, they have to balance providing healthier options against their child’s food preference, the time available to prepare lunch boxes, and cost of potentially wasted food. They also want to ensure their child eats something and doesn’t go hungry. This is a massive, and often overwhelming, challenge for parents,” Associate Professor McCarthy said.

“Parents should focus on supporting children to build healthy relationships with food. Encouraging them to try a variety of foods is more likely to set them up for better health in the long term.

“Research has shown that food habits and food choices developed in childhood continue into adulthood which can reduce risks of obesity and associated physical and mental health issues like type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and depression.”

She warned against food being labelled as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, instead recommending that families enjoy exploring a wide variety of foods with their children, keeping foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt to a minimum. That means chips and sweets should be included less often, perhaps just once or twice a week.

Lunchbox tips & tricks

Associate Professor McCarthy suggested parents aim try to include something from each of the five food groups in a lunch box. 

Things such as:

  • grains like bread/wraps, pasta, rice or couscous
  • veggies like carrot, tomatoes, cucumber, corn, and capsicum
  • lean meat or an alternative like chicken, boiled egg, tuna, or beans
  • dairy or alternative like yogurt or cheese. These can be cow’s milk or a calcium fortified soy milk variety
  • fruit like berries, bananas or dried fruit.

And of course a water bottle with tap water as a drink.

She said encouraging kids to be part of the process makes a big difference too. 

“Including your kids in their own food choices is one of the best things parents can do. Giving them some control here really is important, but also encourage them to try new foods and leading by example. Over time these activities are more likely to create adults who are open to trying new flavours and combinations and importantly, getting the nutrition they need,” Associate Professor McCarthy said. 

“Most importantly, don’t make food a battle ground. The more parents push children to eat or try certain foods the more the kids will push back. Always offer and gently encourage them to try, lead by example; but if they are not interested just leave it out of the lunch box and put in an alternative that they do like (this week),” Associate Professor McCarthy added.

Be creative and make lunch boxes fun. Associate Professor McCarthy suggested using your child’s favourite cartoon character or what they are most into at that moment to make the lunch boxes an adventure. For example, matching fruit and vegetable snacks to your child’s favourite superhero costume. 

“Cost is a big concern, especially when children are not eating and wasting food. Don’t put too much food into the lunchbox as this will result in some if not all of it coming home. Going for cheaper options like frozen fruit (it will keep long if they don’t want it this week), keep an eye out for seasonal foods that might be cheaper to buy, and buying supermarket own brands or unbranded options can reduce the pressure on the family budget.”

Tasty snack options for all ages

  • Rather than crisps try small bags of plain popcorn.
  • Include a small container with favourite berries (can be frozen) rather than sweets.
  • Small boxes of dried fruit, even yogurt covered, can be a good alternative to chocolate treats.
  • Try rice crackers as a savoury snack (but watch that these are not too salty).
  • Try homemade oat biscuits (there are lots of recipes but ones that use fruit to sweeten are best).
  • A small slice of fruit bread can be a filling and sweet snack. 
  • Try a small container of cream cheese (lower fat variety) with veggie sticks.
  • Cut cubes of cheese (enough to fit in the palm of their hand).

Snack ideas and recipes prepared by Laura Booth and Caoilfhionn Gilvarry, visiting Public Health Nutrition students from Technology University Dublin currently working with Associate Professor McCarthy’s team at VU. 


Contact us

Gemma Williams

Media and Communications Manager, Research and Impact

+61 401 664 047 [email protected]