Healthy packed lunches (for adults and kids!)

Taking a proper lunch break to nourish the brain and body is an everyday must-do. All too often adults work through lunch at the desk and children have a grab-and-go quick fix that lacks the nutrients needed to fuel their day.

The statistics regarding children’s lunches are particularly worrying. British children eat 5.5 billion packed lunches each year but research from the University of Leeds shows that only one per cent of their lunchboxes meet the nutritional standards which have been set for their classmates on school meals.   

However, coming up with simple, healthy packed lunch recipes that please everyone can be tough work! Let’s start with what to avoid when making a packed lunch for school or a family day out. The most common culprits for nutritional no-no’s at lunchtime are:

  • White bread sandwiches made with processed sandwich fillings e.g. cheese slices and processed cold meats
  • Shop bought cakes, biscuits, chocolate, crisps
  • Fizzy drinks
  • Fast food
  • Ready meals with hidden sugars and salt, and often many additives 

Instead, let’s focus on some of the things you should include:

Slow-release carbohydrates

Low G.I. or slow release carbohydrates deliver sustained energy throughout the afternoon. Examples include wholegrain or rye bread, a brown rice or simple pasta salad (avoid those with loads of mayo or cheese) or oatcakes with a simple, healthy topping. 


A healthy source of protein 

Fresh chicken, tuna, boiled eggs are easy protein rich options that provide vital amino acids to support your children’s growth and overall wellbeing. Cheese (not the stringy or processed types!) is another option that’s popular with most children. Nuts are also ideal but are not allowed in schools, better kept for a family picnics!


Fresh fruit and vegetables   

 This could be in the form of salad in a healthy sandwich, crudites of pepper, cucumber and carrot to replace crisps or fresh chopped fruit with yoghurt for a pudding.


A healthy treat

It’s unrealistic for most children to have no ‘treat’ in their packed lunch, especially if classmates are all enjoying theirs.. Baking a batch of a tasty homemade oaty flapjacks at the weekend allows you to have control over ingredients and portion size - it’s a budget friendly approach too. 

LOWER SUGAR FLAPJACKS - makes 8-10 flapjacks

The more natural agave syrup and oats in these flapjacks in these flapjacks doesn’t cause the same spike in blood sugar as refined sugars meaning energy is released slowly and more evenly.

2-3 tablespoons sugar alternative - agave syrup, honey or maple syrup 

75g Butter

40g Rapeseed Oil

225g Rolled Oats (Nairn’s Gluten Free Oats are great)

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C / Fan 160°C.
  2. Line a shallow oblong tin (approx 18cm x 25cm / 7” x 10”) with baking paper.
  3. Place the syrup, butter and oil in a large pan.  Gently heat, stirring occasionally, until the butter has melted.  
  4. Stir in the oats.  
  5. Tip the mixture into the tin and press down with the back of a fork or spoon.  
  6. Bake in the preheated oven for 20-25 minutes or until the outside edges are golden brown.  It should still feel slightly soft to the touch.
  7. Leave to cool before cutting into squares.  Tip - if you chill the cooked flapjack it is easier to cut into neat pieces.

 Jazzing it up!

For adults if you’re looking for a bit of variety there are lots of creative ways to jazz up ready-made salad boxes.  Try adding some simple ingredients like pesto, nuts, pumpkin seeds or even crumble some oatcakes over the top (Nairn’s Super Seeded or Cracked Black Pepper ones work particularly well). Or swap that uninspiring sandwich for some oatcakes topped with:

  • Sliced avocado, with a drizzle of lemon juice and a pinch of sea salt and ground black pepper
  • Two teaspoons of almond butter
  • Feta cheese with halved olives 
  • A tablespoon of hummus

 Alternatively, think about taking last night’s leftovers to heat up at work and serving in a baked potato. Last but certainly not least, if you’ve been making soups at home, why not make a bit extra and buy a thermos flask? If you or others in your family struggle with eating greens, this twist on child-friendly classic Leek and Potato soup sneaks in some vitamin rich watercress.


A classic warming soup with added watercress to boost energy and support immunity. 

1 tbsp olive oil
1 large onion, sliced
4 sticks of celery
225g potatoes, peeled and diced
2 large leeks,sliced and washed
1 litre vegetable stock
2 tbsp crème fraîche
salt and pepper to season
Small bunch of Watercress (about 50g), washed

  1. Warm the oil in a large pan and add the onions, celery, potatoes and leeks. Sweat for 3-4 minutes until starting to go soft.
  2. Add the vegetable stock and bring to the boil. Season well and simmer until the vegetables are tender, stir in the watercress.
  3. Remove from the heat and use a blender to blend until smooth. 
  4. Reheat in a clean pan, stir in the creme fraîche.

Putting just a little bit more thought into lunchtime can reap almost instant rewards – it can be healthier AND more cost effective when you’re more prepared. Again, get the kids involved in choosing their packed lunches or what you’ll have at the weekends and make it fun. If you’re particularly proud of a lunch this week, share some photos on social #NaturallyEnergising.  It’s all about snacking next week – catch up with you soon…..

Amanda Hamilton

About the author

Amanda Hamilton
Nutritionist and broadcaster

Amanda is one of the UK's most established nutritionists, with a career that has included three best-selling books (with a new title coming out in January), an internationally syndicated TV series and regular slots on BBC radio. She runs her signature detox and weight loss retreats in leading spas across Europe. But most of all, she's a busy working mum who is passionate about healthy, tasty and wholesome food.