Healthy Packed Lunches

British Dietetic Association

Packed lunches can be easy, healthy and exciting. These tips can help you make a tasty and nutritious lunch and help you choose options from the main food groups.

Carbohydrates and fibre

One of the most important foods for a balanced diet is carbohydrates. Often people think carbohydrates are bad, but they should make up just over a third of the food you eat.

Carbohydrates provide a range of nutrients and provide us with the energy we need for all body functions. Without them in your diet, you might struggle with concentration, memory and performance. Carbohydrates also provide fibre, calcium, iron and B vitamins. 

Including different food containing carbohydrate in the diet gives you lots of opportunities to eat fibre. Fibre helps your bowel function, gut and digestive system, and helps you to feel full after your lunch.

Here are some easy ways to include carbohydrates in your lunches:

  • Bread: Try keeping a selection of breads in the freezer for sandwiches and choose wholegrain options. Using different breads can make sandwiches more interesting. Why not dunk bread in soup a couple of times a week? Try pitta, bagels, seeded loaves, wholemeal chapati, roti, parathas and multigrain rolls.
  • Potatoes: You could cook a couple of extra jacket potatoes at dinner time or the night before work. Pack them up with tasty toppings and reheat in the microwave. Remember the skin is the most fibrous part - and is tasty! Sweet potatoes are also full of healthy fibre and other nutrients.
  • Pasta, rice, couscous: These are cheap and easy to prepare. Wholegrain varieties contain more fibre. Add these into soup or a salad, or stuff or fill cooked peppers, potatoes or aubergines. For example, couscous, leftover chopped veggies, meat or alternative, seeds and a lemony dressing make for great stuffed peppers.
  • Beans and other pulses: Baked beans are a source of fibre, especially paired with jacket potatoes at lunch. Try adding other canned beans to your lunch box, they will give you more exciting lunches. Try Mexican chilli on a jacket potato, chickpeas in your salad, soups, lentils in curry, and hummus (chickpeas) in sandwiches.
  • Nuts and seeds: Add these to your salads to bring texture, flavour, fibre and crunch to your lunch.
  • Fruit: Having a whole piece of fruit at lunch is always a good idea. Try to buy different fruits every so often, to get variety and be more cost-effective by buying what's in season.

Fats

Including fats in your lunch will keep you satiated and keep you fuller for longer. 

  • In sandwiches: Using lots of butter, spread or mayonnaise on sandwiches can lead to a higher intake of saturated fat. Be mindful of how much you use and opt for less. Spread only one side of the sandwich or try something new like using hummus as an alternative.
  • Oily fish e.g. salmon or mackerel, are great ways of including healthy fats. If you have a toaster at work, take your bread in your packed lunch, toast it there and add the fish on top. You can also try this with other toppings if you prefer warm meals at lunch.
  • Salads and dressings: Making your own dressing means you get something you like and you know exactly how much fat you are using. Using a teaspoon of olive oil with vinegar and herbs is a healthy way to dress your salad. Salmon, avocado or hummus are delicious options to incorporate healthy fats into your salad.

Hydration

It is important to stay hydrated during the day. Current guidance is for women to drink 1.6 litres and men 2 litres of water per day. Remember your body may need more water in warm weather or when you do a lot of physical exercise. It is a good idea to bring a drinks bottle in your lunch box. Avoid soft or fizzy drinks that are high in added artificial sweeteners and sugars.

Choose from:

  • plain water
  • sparkling water
  • milk (dairy: skimmed or semi-skimmed) or plant-based alternatives
  • pure fruit juice or smoothie. One portion is 150ml and counts as one of your five-a-day - but it will only ever count one portion no matter how much you drink 
  • flasks of soup and hot drinks
  • whilst vegetables and fruits are not a drink, they contribute to keeping you hydrated 

Fruits and vegetables

It is important to eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables every day. Try including a variety, as different fruits and vegetables will give you different types of antioxidants. Fruit and vegetables may reduce your risk of heart disease, stroke and some types of cancer. Here are some ideas to include them at lunch:

  • Sandwiches: Add cucumber, lettuce, tomato or avocado
  • Salads: Salad is a great way to eat more vegetables at lunchtime. Add a dressing, hummus, pieces of chicken, baked tofu, dried fruits, seeds, butter beans, cheese, cottage cheese, or cream cheese to make it exciting.
  • Cooked vegetables: You could enjoy these in a soup in a flask 
  • Pack sliced raw vegetables e.g. carrot sticks, peppers, cucumber, cherry tomatoes. These can be great for dipping in hummus, guacamole or cottage cheese 
  • Fruit: Pack an apple, grapes, banana or kiwi fruit. Opt for dried fruits such as raisins or apricots. Tinned fruit in natural juice is a great option as the fruit is always perfectly ripe. Tie your lunchtime fruit in with plain yoghurt – it’s a healthier alternative to ready-made fruit yoghurt

Protein

Protein is essential for the growth and repair of our body. Here are some options for both animal and plant-based protein. Try to include beans, pulses, eggs, nuts, fish, dairy and lean meat in your lunchbox such as:

  • Beans in salads and soups, lentil soups, dahl with roti bread or wholemeal wraps, hummus in salads or on sandwiches, peas in pasta/soup 
  • Greek style or plain yoghurt, peanut (or another nut) butter, quark or cottage cheese with fresh fruit and nuts
  • Tuna, salmon or sardines seasoned with herbs or spices with bread or pasta, or with a salad containing cucumber, pepper, sweetcorn, tomato or greens
  • Seasoned chicken, turkey or minced meat kebab paired with bread (wholemeal, wraps, chapati) or pasta, couscous or salad (cucumber, pepper, sweetcorn, tomato or greens).
  • Add hard-boiled eggs to your lunchbox. Omelettes can be enjoyed cold in sandwiches, or try making egg fried rice to pack into your lunch box.
  • Plant-based options aren’t necessarily a healthy choice. Mock meats contain protein but may be packed with salt, additives, and fat - check food labels.

Dairy

Milk and dairy products, such as cheese and yoghurt, are sources of protein and calcium. They can form part of a healthy, balanced pack lunch. Here are some ideas:

  • Check the labels on yoghurts - sometimes they have lots of sugar, especially if you choose low-fat yoghurt. Plain yoghurt with fresh fruit is a healthier option. Rice pudding is also a tasty and easily-packed lunch dessert 
  • Cheese in soups, sandwiches, salads (green salads or pasta/rice salads) is a good way to add protein and dairy
  • Vary cheeses often in your lunch. Try soft cheeses like Brie or camembert, goat milk cheese, or soft, blue-veined cheese, such as Roquefort.

Fancy something more?

Don't make certain foods "off-limits", just try and make healthier choices more often. If you opt for high sugar, salt or fat snacks, keep it to once or twice a week and aim for about 100 calories worth of energy from these foods.

Opting for crackers, fruit and veggie sticks more often, rather than crisps, chocolate, and pastries (e.g. sausage rolls/pasties) is a great way to be more mindful of fat in the diet. 

Remember to keep your lunch cool and safe 

  • Use a cool bag, an ice pack or freeze a carton of juice and place it with food to keep cool
  • Keep lunch in the fridge until morning if you make it the night before
  • Don’t store your lunch next to a radiator or in direct sunlight

Top tips

  • Lots of foods can be used to make a packed lunch varied and tasty
  • Try and make healthier choices more often and limit snacks high in sugar, salt or fat
  • There is a lot of overlap - for example - including fruit in your lunchbox also has fibre, including bread in your lunchbox not only adds fibre but protein too
  • Don’t feel pressured to include foods from every group in every meal, but aim for a balance across the day or week
  • Remember to include something from each of the main food groups, as well as water, and you’ll not only have a meal to look forward to, but a lunchbox packed full of all the right nutrients to fuel your body for the rest of the day

Useful resources

MediaWise is a FREE media literacy resource, designed by primary school teachers and...
Certified by the AfN. This course is for those who already have a basic knowledge of...
Cancer Focus NI can provide a wide range of presentations to meet the needs of your...
This course is aimed at practice nurses and aims to explain the science behind the...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
This course is about eating well and keeping healthy if you’re staying at home more since...
Your dietitian will look at any food and drink provision for staff including: canteen or...
The Quick Fit programme offers positive steps to improve your health through diet and...
Vital Nutrition’s Healthy Shift Workers workshop provides employees with a practical plan...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
This course will provide you with some information about sport and exercise nutrition –...
BDA will enrich your events with food demos, health and nutrition check-ups, competitions...
Vital Nutrition’s Jane McClenaghan is known for her down-to-earth, practical approach to...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
Fat is an essential nutrient in our diet but may often be thought about negatively and...
We will enrich your events with food demos, health and nutrition check-ups, competitions...
Vital Nutrition specialises in developing bespoke, tailor made nutritional programmes to...
Certified by the AfN. This course is for those with an interest in nutrition and would be...
Vital Nutrition offers a complete range of corporate health and workplace wellbeing...
This course is for midwives and aims to explain the science behind the different types of...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
Do you want to eat in a way that helps you reach your ideal weight, gives you boundless...
This course will provide you with the basic nutrition knowledge and practical tools...
Taste Buds is a resource that helps children aged 8 to 11 enjoy learning about the...
Fun, fast food for less. This is a practical six-week nutrition programme aimed at...
This course is aimed at pharmacists and aims to explain the science behind the different...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
This course will provide you with the basic knowledge to help you adopt a healthier and...
Your Work Ready dietitian will visit your organisation. They will ask what you want, see...
Cancer Focus NI, Keeping Well vans are mobile drop-in units which bring health checks,...
Are you often too tired to cook? Not organised enough to have breakfast and lunch sorted...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
This course would be of particular use to health professionals and students wanting to...
We will enrich your events with food demos, health and nutrition check-ups, competitions...
Here at Vital Nutrition, we work with schools all over Northern Ireland to help inspire...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
Vital Nutrition specialises in developing bespoke, tailor made nutritional programmes to...
This course provides caterers, food service providers and catering students with the...
We all have good and bad days but what and when we eat can influence our mood, energy,...
Develop healthier eating habits, be more active, and get on track to start losing weight...
Our free Easy Meals app is a great way to eat foods that are healthier for you. You’ll...
Food diary, exercise tracker and diet coach
Nutrition scanner
Use this calculator to check your body mass index (BMI) and find out if you are a healthy weight. Or, use it to check your child's BMI centile.