Back to School Lunch Box & Nutrition Tips from National Dairy Council


 Over 555,000 primary school children are expected to return to school this Autumn, including over 71,000 new Junior Infants.   Dr. Marianne Walsh, Nutrition Manager at the National Dairy Council gives some practical tips and suggestions to help parents and families to plan lunch-boxes and snacks which are enjoyable, nutritionally balanced and convenient.

 Back to School Lunch Box & Nutrition Tips from National Dairy Council

She says that variety, balance and adventure are important ingredients for success and encourages parents and families to try some of the ideas at home before children start back at school. 




“There’s a lot of things to get used to at the start of the term, ranging from new books to possibly a new teacher, new classroom or new friends,” says Dr. Walsh.   “It’s ideal if you can experiment at home with lunch ideas and to introduce some new flavours and new food textures during August,  before school starts – or at home during the weekends.  This means children are not coping with new foods on top of everything else at the start of the term in the classroom, but it also means they can take part in the planning and preparation.”

 Back to School Lunch Box & Nutrition Tips from National Dairy Council



Dr. Walsh encourages children to get involved in helping to prepare food and to plan food as much as possible saying that learning about food, nutrition and portion sizes are important life skills.  “Most children will be introduced to the food pyramid at school, so it’s a good idea to include a picture of the food pyramid on the fridge or in the kitchen to remind yourself and the school-goers about how to follow a healthy, balanced diet,” says Dr. Walsh.  




“Unfortunately national surveys have shown us that 37% of Irish girls and 28% of Irish boys aged from 5 –12 years of age don’t get enough calcium in their diet; and 42% of teenage girls, 23% of teenage boys have insufficient calcium intakes,” says Dr. Walsh.   “This is worrying because children and young adolescents are going through really important phases of growth and development,” says Dr. Walsh.


Most people are aware of calcium as the nutrient commonly associated with bone health, and it is needed for the growth and development of bone in children. In fact, about 99% of the body’s calcium is found in our bones and teeth.   Bone is a living tissue, constantly evolving and remodelling and therefore we need a continuous supply of bone-friendly nutrients and regular physical activity throughout our lives.




“As a nutritionist, I would advise families to follow the Department of Health’s recommendations of 3 servings from the “milk, yogurt and cheese” food group for those aged 5 years and up; with 5 servings recommended for 9-18 year olds due to the importance of calcium during this life stage. Calcium is extremely important for the growth and development of normal bones in children. 


Examples of one serving or portion size include 200ml of milk, 125ml of yogurt or 25g of hard cheese.  


You may like to check if your child’s school is registered with the School Milk Scheme, which is a convenient and affordable way to help your child meet the recommended intake from the ‘milk, yogurt and cheese’ food group.

“This food group also supplies a range of other nutrients including protein, vitamin B12, iodine vitamin B2 and phosphorous – making milk and dairy quite an affordable source of good nutrition,” says Dr. Walsh.


Vitamin D is also very important for bone health. Vitamin D is known as the “sunshine vitamin” and it is made from the action of sunlight on the skin. However dietary sources include oily fish, eggs and dairy foods fortified with vitamin D.




If a child favours a particular type of food or sandwich it is easy to fall into a routine of providing that for school lunch as a ‘dependable reliable’ all of the time. They may become bored with that food and can even grow to dislike it because they have it so often.  


Including variety in sandwiches can often be quite difficult especially five days a week. Using different types of bread can help to prevent boredom – such as bagels, pitta bread, wholemeal wraps and bread rolls. Try to opt for wholegrain varieties where possible and vary sandwich fillings from day to day.


Preparing lunches in interesting shapes and colourful lunchboxes can make lunchtime more appealing.   It’s great to encourage children to try new flavours and textures so that they’re not stuck with the same foods all of the time – but by giving them time to gradually get used to them and expand their tastes.




Snacking can often be perceived as a bad habit.  However many children can only tolerate small amounts of food in one sitting due to their small body size. Snacking can play an important role in a child’s diet but we need to encourage nutritionally beneficial and healthy snack routines.   It can be a great opportunity to couple a healthy piece of fruit with a yogurt or glass of milk. Smoothies can also be a great snack to include as part of their lunch as not only do they taste good but the varieties are endless. They can also be made up the night before, ready to go in the morning.




1.       Preparing – involve children as much as you can and refer to the Department of Health’s Food Pyramid.  Making lunches the night before will give you more time to work together and shorten the already lengthy list of things to do in the morning.

2.       Packing – a small colourful cool bag to store the lunchbox may help to keep food cool and fresh until lunch time. Try to avoid soggy sandwiches by keeping wetter ingredients separate – for instance swap sliced tomato for a little container of cherry tomatoes. Keep softer fruit such as bananas or pears in a lunch box to avoid bruising.

3.       Drinks – dehydration may cause fatigue and weakness affecting performance in school. Drinks should be included for small break and lunch. Water and milk are considered the best choices. Including straws and colourful bottles may encourage children to drink more. Make sure containers or bottles containing liquid are easy for the child to use and are sealed properly!

4.       Don’t forget – breakfast is said to be the most important meal of the day to break that overnight fast and is especially important for school children.   Milk and dairy products can easily be incorporated into your child’s breakfast to fuel a hectic day at school. Milk can be included in porridge and high fibre breakfast cereals and yogurt can accompany a fruit salad of their favourite fruits.

5.       Encourage your child to take part in sport or a physically active hobby.  All children and young people should be active, at a moderate to vigorous level, for at least 60 minutes every day.  It is ideal if you can get active with your children, because leading by example is an ideal way to encourage an active lifestyle.  Why not dedicate family time to a weekly trip to the local swimming pool or a walk in the park.




Sandwich filling suggestions

Tuna and sweetcorn, spinach leaves and mayo

Chicken, salad leaves, crunchy peppers and salsa type relish

Turkey, grated cheese and mayo

Cheddar cheese with salad leaves and tomato based relish


Alternatives to sandwiches

Cold pasta salad with pesto, chicken and red peppers

Homemade soup (in a thermos flask) with some brown soda bread for dipping

Curried cous cous with roasted vegetables

Mixed Tuna salad with sweetcorn, cherry tomatoes and grated cheddar cheese

Remember to adapt portion sizes to suit the child’s age and lifestyle.



Cubed cheddar with grapes

Carrot sticks/red peppers and a hummus dip

Dried fruit

Granola/chopped fruit and yogurt

Homemade Flapjacks



Former Olympian Derval O’ Rourke is an ambassador to the National Dairy Council’s  ‘Moo Crew’ primary school programme.    Here are a few suggestions from Derval to try:


Derval O Rourke’s Stuffed Pitta Pockets:

Prep time: 5 minutes     Cooking time: 5 minutes


2 mini pitta pockets

1 chicken breast cooked and chopped

2 tbsp of natural yogurt

1 tbsp of relish

2 chopped spring onions

1tbsp of chopped chives

25g grated cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper to season


1.Chop the chicken breast and mix it with the yogurt, relish, spring onion and chives. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Put a slit in the top of the pitta pockets and stuff them with cheese.
3. Add the chicken mix to the pittas


Derval O’Rourke’s Tasty Oat cakes with white cheddar cheese and sliced apple

Preparation time: 2 minutes


Serves 1

2 oat cakes

½ apple

25 g white cheddar cheese



1. Slice your apple and cheese

2. Place the apple and cheese on the oatcakes and eat


For further information and recipe suggestions visit


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