The lunchbox mistake most parents make - and the easy way to fix it

Photo: Nutritionist Susie Burrell  says it;s easy to get a better balance of carbs and protein in the lunchbox.
Photo: Nutritionist Susie Burrell says it;s easy to get a better balance of carbs and protein in the lunchbox. Photo: Instagram

Some parents love putting them together, while others count down to school holidays so they get a reprieve - school lunches.

The myriad of small containers, snack food, chopped fruits and rejected sandwiches can cause much angst and stress for even the most relaxed of parents. And as many endeavour to excel at 'parenting', comes the pressure associated with creating a nutritionally sound, Instagram-worthy lunchbox that will be the envy of the playground. 

What may come as a surprise, is that the number one nutritional issue I see with children's lunches is not the presence of snack food, or the use of white bread for sandwiches, rather it is the significant proportion of carbohydrate based foods that are chosen to fuel our children's days - a nutrient balance that can ultimately leave our kids unsatisfied and prone to overeating late in the day.

Photo: Susie Burrell and her twins / Instagram
Photo: Susie Burrell and her twins / Instagram  

So if you have noticed that your kids will literally eat your leg when they arrive home from school, here is the easy way you can get the macronutrient balance of your child's lunchbox on point to ensure that they are fuelled - as well as satisfied - throughout the school day.

Carbohydrate based foods including bread, rice, cereal, pasta, fruits as well as sugars such as jam and honey are the primary sources of fuel for both the muscles and for the brain. As children have relatively high energy demands, their need for carbohydrates is generally higher than that of more sedentary adults.

As such, lunchbox fillers including fruits, wholegrain breads and cereals and yoghurts are minimally processed, nutritious options that tick the box on energy rich foods for hungry kids.


One thing I did it realise before have two 4 year olds is how much they eat and how much more I am spending at the supermarket. Here is a day in the life of snacking in the Burrell-Smith household 🤦‍♀️ along with my Peanut Butter Coconut Balls if you are that way inclined Peanut Butter & Coconut Protein Balls 1 scoop protein powder 1/2 cup wholegrain rolled oats 1/4 cup shredded coconut plus extra for rolling 2 tbsp. cocoa powder 2 tbsp. @mayversfood peanut butter 2 tbsp. honey 1) Mix ingredients together in a large mixing bowl 2) Roll heaped tablespoons of the mixture into balls. 3) Roll in the extra coconut. 4) Chill in the fridge for an hour until firm. 5) Keep in an airtight container for up to a month. #nutrition #snacking #healthysnackimg #nutritionist #diet #dietitian #proteinballs

A post shared by Susie Burrell (@susiediet) on

A quick scan of a typical lunchbox will generally reveal some type of sandwich or wrap, a piece of fruit or two, occasionally a vegetable along with several packaged snacks. Indeed data collected back in 2005 revealed that, on average, the lunchboxes of primary school aged children contained three packaged varieties of chips, biscuits, or snack bars.

While on the surface this lunchbox mix would tick the box for carbohydrate rich foods, processed carbohydrates are completely dominating the mix at the expense of protein rich foods and good fats.


The issue with this is that as carbohydrates are digested relatively quickly, children are left with fluctuating blood glucose levels, which drives hunger and potentially overeating, especially late in the day. Excessive carbohydrate in the absence of adequate activity too is associated with weight gain over time.

The solution to this common problem is simple - a much greater focus on protein rich foods in the lunchbox, as well as awareness of the impact of an early fruit break on appetite management. Here a piece of fruit enjoyed at 930 or 10am, closely followed by recess of more carbohydrate rich snacks such as fruits, bars, biscuits and crackers again means that much of the food consumed is carbohydrate. Again a simplr shift to a veggie break rather than fruit and protein rich recess options solves the issue.


A post shared by Susie Burrell (@susiediet) on

The good news is that it is easy to get a better balance of carbs and protein in the lunchbox.

All you need to do is follow these simple steps.

1) Swap fruit break to a veggie break and send baby cucumbers, tomatoes, chopped carrots, celery or capsicum. Or if you have a fussy veggie eater, opt for lighter fruits such as berries or mandarin.

2) Always choose child-sized fruit and send just one piece per day.

3) Ensure your child's recess includes a protein rich food. Good choices include child sized yoghurts that contain no added sugar, cheese and crackers, roasted broadbeans or chic peas, a boiled egg, a mini wrap with a little ham or chicken or cheese or a homemade protein ball (minus the nuts). A reasonable serve of protein is 5-10g per serve.

4) Aim for at most one packaged snack food that contains <5g of sugars per serve. Good options include popcorn, homemade banana bread or small, low sugar wholegrain snack bars.

5) Aim for your child's wrap or sandwich to include a protein rich filling of 30-50g of lean turkey, chicken, ham, tuna or egg.

This balanced approach will ensure that your little one gets all the essential nutrients he or she needs at school via a balance of both good quality carbs and protein that will also help to keep them full, satisfied as well as happy with the contents of their lunchbox.

Susie Burrell is a mum of twin boys and one of Australia's leading dietitians. Follow her at or Instagram