7 mistakes parents make with school lunches

Packing a kid’s lunch box is hard work, no doubt about it. Coming up with a nutritionally balanced, interesting, non-repetitive lunch solution is trying at the best of times. The last thing a parent wants to do is make it even harder on herself by packing the wrong kind of lunch box. The wrong kind of lunch box? You bet! There are certain items a lunch box should never contain. Here’s the low down.

1. Banned foods

This will vary from school to school. The banning of nuts has come under wide debate in recent years, and some schools over in Australia have extended this to seed products like tahini and sesame bars . Many schools also have egg products (including mayonnaise) and some high-allergen fruits such as strawberries, bananas and kiwi fruits on their ‘alert’ list. More and more schools are also introducing ‘recommendations’ for foods they don’t believe have a place at school – energy drinks, lollies and soft drinks top those lists. Check with your school for their food guidelines.

2. Foods that spoil

There are lots of ways to pack a lunch box so that it stays cool all day. An insulated bag with an ice pack and a frozen drink bottle stands a good chance of protecting the food inside until lunch time.  Unless you’re absolutely certain that your lunch box can stand the test, don’t pack foods like yoghurt, rice, cold cuts, chicken, fish (including pre-opened tinned tuna) or egg products.

3. Messy foods

Besides a parent’s drudgery of tackling day-old stains on a school uniform, being at school while dirty or smelly isn’t nice for any child. Foods to avoid are tomato sauce (it just has a tendency to ooze out the other end when you take a bite), yoghurt in a tub (the lids are tricky for little hands and when they finally give… so does the contents), runny foods like tuck shop meat pies or flavoured milk and, unless your child has particularly good table manners, food requiring cutlery like leftover pasta or casserole.

4. Foods that are tricky

Tricky foods include foods with intricate packaging that small hands just can’t budge. The teacher on playground duty can only open so many packets of chips per minute, so if your child needs help opening hers, don’t pack them! Popper drinks with straws that are welded to the side of the pack are a tricky food. Yoghurt can also prove elusive for little people – the “tear off” lids are anything but, and many kids end up stabbing at the lid with their plastic spoon. Instead, look for easy-to-use ‘tearaway’ strips that open the goods once torn or pack small portions into containers they can manage.

5. Monotonous food

How well I know the glee when all three of my kids’ lunch boxes come home completely empty. Aha, I think, the secret food combination is revelled at last: a vegemite sandwich, a cheese triangle, three crackers, apple chips and raspberries it is for the rest of their schooling days. It works for about three days and then suddenly the spell is broken – the same food they loved three days ago starts coming home uneaten and the cycle starts all over again.

The trick is to get three or four good lunch box combinations sorted (five if you can stretch it) and rotate them.  So the vegemite combo can be Mondays, a chicken combo on Tuesdays, a tuna salad combo on Wednesdays, and so on. The variety does them the world of good and they totally don’t realise they’re eating the same four lunches day in day out.  Result!

6. Embarrassing food

How well my husband remembers the lunches his Italian mama lovingly packed for him: mortadella focaccia, arancini balls, salami pasta… bliss! Except, not bliss for a ten year old boy sitting in a very Australian school playground. All he ever wanted was a vegemite sanga and an orange.

Of course, these days the majority of us are probably popping a few ‘exotic’ combinations into our kids’ lunch boxes, but the fact still remains that there will be cool food and very uncool food. I learned this the hard way when my nine year old son quietly let me know that my homemade muesli bars were ‘embarrassing’ and that he just wanted a ‘muesli bar in a wrapper’ for once. Needless to say, he didn’t exactly get his wish, but I did concede to putting in a consolation dairy milk mini chocolate from time to time. Kids just want to fit in.

7. Foods they really don’t like

Another one I learned the hard way. My third-born started school last year and I sent her off with my tried and trusty lunch box combinations only to find that what her brother and sister deemed acceptable was anything but. She didn’t like anything they liked at all! I fought this for months – sending her off with the same lunch as her siblings, determined to, I don’t know, starve her out. It absolutely backfired on me.  At the end of each day she was just a very, very hungry little girl with a very full lunch box. The school lunch box is not the place for experimentation.

So these days I pack her something quite different to the others – she likes little containers of random things like olives, gherkins, cheese snacks and crackers, and leftover pasta and rice. You’ve got to pack them things they’ll eat – the school lunch is far too important a meal to risk them not eating any of it.


  1. gillymama 08/03/2018 at 12:00 pm

    ahhh school lunches!! early last year I did a lunchbox challenge and it was great to get new ideas and follow a weekly challenge to get the kids trying new things. I did quite well but couldn’t always make or get the things needed. We are a basic lunch box family with sandwiches or wraps, crackers/cookie/muffin and fruit/veggies and sometimes yoghurt. My kids just don’t eat much! even if I’ve made the best lunch ever and packed in extra yummy treats they still say they get full. I used to joke to my eldest son he only took an apple to school as an accessory… it could last all week ( blergh!) One thing I’m happy about it that we don’t use any packaging of any sort in our lunch boxes. I make yoghurt and spoon it into a container with a lid so the kids really like that option too.

  2. danielle2211 27/02/2018 at 9:03 pm

    I struggle with lunches I have one kid that eats alot and one that might eat a few crackers. Iv given up on yogurts as they are never eaten or when they do the spill all through the lunch box. I think the trick is to mix it up if they get given the same stuff everyday they don’t eat it so yogurt now is one a week. Mixing it up with different raw vege carrot, broccoli, cucumber. And I think cutting the food helps. Getting a bento lunchbox with different sections gives you space for more selection of food but smaller amounts.

  3. kymmage 26/02/2018 at 12:17 pm

    Our school has banned nuts and that almost backfired for us because at the time Nutella was the only thing that would be eaten. Thankfully we have found ways around it. Have also learnt that what one child likes isn’t always going to be a hit and it’s odd – I have one who needs the same thing every single day to function and another who gets bored with her food if it’s always the same thing! So much to navigate.

  4. felicity beets 19/02/2018 at 5:27 pm

    I find it hard to find new ideas for packed lunches without being repetitive, especially gluton free options. Also did not realise there were so many foods that were banned.

  5. SarahBlair 13/02/2018 at 4:00 pm

    Lunches are the bane of my life!! I never get empty lunch boxes, no matter what goes in them! I have tried all sorts! Im just happy when there is evidence of them at least trying to eat!!

  6. Bevik1971 13/02/2018 at 1:47 pm

    It’s been quite a few years since my son was at school (he’s 24 now) and our daughter has just started school this year. She is pretty fussy so it can be challenging to give her enough and things that she will actually eat. But I love the Mother Earth vege bars and so does she. We do popcorn, Organic Rice crackers, she gets a pouch of Charlies water/juice once or twice a week. A piece of fruit daily and a sandwich

  7. MuddledUpMolly 12/02/2018 at 1:40 pm

    We used to have lots of these problems when our little man first started school so we have learned the hard way but it is always good to have a few reminders. Now that he is older he likes to choose his own lunches and as he has grown, his appetite has increased accordingly so we no longer find a half eaten lunch at the bottom of his bag 🙂

  8. Alezandra 09/02/2018 at 3:59 pm

    My son just started kindergarten and this is one of the things I am struggling with. As an Asian, we are used to rice or noodles for meals and I let my son get messy with learning to eat these and he will get messy. I realised I can’t pack them to school so I now need to work on having 3 or 4 combinations as to also give my son a variety of meals. The links below the article are a good start with 8 great lunch box ideas. Next challenge would be to get my son to eat them.

  9. Jen_Wiig 09/02/2018 at 2:17 pm

    Argh gone are the days where you would take a paper bag with a sandwich however basic it was a piece of fruit and homemaking. I grow slightly more grey hair every morning doing lunches as I dread the full lunchbox coming home like the mistake above said trying to keep a few options a rotation… Can be tough sometimes when on an incredibly tight budget and then what what worked last Monday isn’t the same this Monday. I’ve got to the point now with my boys where I don’t actually give them a choice they have what their given it ticks all the health boxes etc and if u don’t eat it u get the next day again or go hungry. Sounds a bit cut throat yes but I need to be to save my sanity and our wallet as they are now at that stage/age where Junk food is the first choice everytime if asked.

  10. Mands1980 09/02/2018 at 10:47 am

    Our school told the kids not to come with yoghurt potatoes because kids would open it and not eat it all then it would go everywhere. They can now take in a container with a lid. Also I’m careful not to put in foods in there lunch box’s that will go of. I try not to put messy foods in there lunch box’s when the kids make there own sometimes I try and check them as well.

  11. Kjgee 08/02/2018 at 9:53 am

    The last point about foods they actually like- so important. I have 2 school aged kids and they don’t have the same tastes and it’s unreasonable of me to think they should have identical lunches! My daughter eats all and any fruits where as my son is a little more picky. It’s silly of me to keep giving him watermelon every day and him bringing it home smooshed in his lunchbox, I am better to give him fruit he does like, and it actually get eaten- we can try watermelon etc again at a later date!

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