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Opinion You might need to simplify your child's lunch so they actually eat it

A white bread sandwich in the belly is better than a vegan curry in the bin, writes Mary McCarthy.

I USED TO have big ambitions about my kid’s school lunch and I doggedly stuck to my fantasy.

I refused to give white bread – even when day after day it all came back untouched.

The broccoli wholemeal pasta or chopped carrots and hummus just kept on boomeranging back home,  all sweaty after a day of marinating.

But did I stop? Not a bit. Disgruntled at the waste I would still diligently produce the same optimistic fare for the next day.

But then I went away for a few days and the hubby took over. He took one look at the madness and made a few executive decisions.

Out with the sticks of cucumber and peppers and in with the popcorn. Gone with the avo and hummus wraps and in with the trusty ham sambo on white batch that never comes back uneaten.

He didn’t bother faffing around with chopped mango or blueberries. It was a banana or nothing.

When I got back the kids begged could dada handle the lunches now and my oldest son said it was great not to be starving in the afternoon anymore or to my shame, scrounging off luckier kids.

At first, I felt annoyed. There I was slaving away trying to ignite a taste for quinoa in the ungrateful children. But I have to admit once I started the new routine I quickly reaped the benefits.

My kids are in better form when I pick them up as they are not hungry. I no longer waste time making elaborate lunches or waste money on food that goes in the bin.

Asking around a lot of mothers agreed saying they were sick of untouched lunches.

 Dublin mum of two Mary Collins says she used to give more complex lunches such as pasta in a flask but it came back uneaten.

 “I know if I give a buttered bagel and some fruit it will be eaten. I give the kids scrambled egg when they get home to make up the protein”, she said.

 White bread is fine

Dr Conor Kerley, dietitian and lecturer, says white bread is not all that bad.

“White bread is lower in nutrients, including fibre and will lead to higher blood sugar levels compared to wholemeal bread,” he says. “However, many white breads are fortified with important vitamins and minerals and although white bread is not ideal, some children will not eat wholemeal”.

He says that popcorn is fine and could be alternated with trail mix, butter adds a lot of energy but is high in saturated fat. While processed meats contain protein and other nutrients, unprocessed varieties would be better.

Dr Kerley says children can be notoriously picky eaters but good nutrition is important throughout life and especially during childhood so it is important to try to establish healthy habits.

But crucially he advises that the battles not be fought at school:

The lunchbox may not be the ideal starting point – it is important to remember that energy and nutrients from healthy foods will help your child at school

But also that an imperfect lunch is better than a perfect lunch in the bin

He says that it is important to ensure that meals at home contain lots of vegetables and whole grains, for example, porridge with raisins and sunflower seeds for breakfast and wholemeal pasta with tomato sauce, chopped vegetables and lentils or chicken the evening.


Teachers are on the coalface of the uneaten lunch so what do they say?

Steffi Smyth, who teaches senior infants in Sanford National in Dublin, advises on easy to manage foods like a sandwich rather than spaghetti bolognese and also making it easy by chopping up fruits such as apple or banana.

“They only get a limited time and if it seems like hard work they will avoid it preferring to play instead,” she says. 

A lot of research show bad moods are linked to the drop in glucose levels when you haven’t eaten and Ms Smyth agrees with this. 

In fact, she says when a child is acting moody the first thing she checks is whether they have eaten. “If a child is having a very emotional day I will check their lunch box and usually it won’t have been touched,” she says. 

Dental decay 

However, simplicity does not mean compromising on sugar content.

The paediatric dentist Dr Margaret Tuite advises parents to beware of some snacks that seem ok but are packed with hidden sugars.

“Avoid crackers, breadstick fingers, rice cakes covered with chocolate or yoghurt as all are heavily refined carbohydrates easily digested in the saliva and contribute to the decay cycle, ” she says. She also warns to sweet breads like brioche and croissant. 

Dr Tuite says kids should eat fruit and not drink it and gives top marks to the simple banana. “Bananas are kinder to teeth as they have less citric acid than berries and other juicy fruits. Avoid dried fruit like raisins as they are reservoirs of sugar and remain stuck in teeth for long periods of time”.

She advises against yoghurt drinks as most of them have high sugar and are acidic and says plain water or milk is the optimum.

Tap water contains fluoride which strengthens teeth and helps control decay and cavities. If milk can be kept chilled it is perfect too. No other drinks make sense for children’s teeth.


Maybe you are lucky enough to have kids who like to eat vegan curry in school. But if you are stuck in the lunch vortex you too can simplify.

I am much happier with the realistic lunch situation that I have now – compared to the unsustainable bento box fantasy. Less time and money wasted.

The kids still get a balanced diet, it’s just they get most of their fruit and veg quota in the afternoon and evening now when I can make sure they actually eat it.

So yes to simplicity and white bread and no to hassle and lunches in the bin!

Tips for a simple lunch

  1. Keep snacks non-processed such as plain rice cakes, a banana, unsweetened popcorn or nuts – although some schools don’t allow nuts so you better check that one.

  2. A sandwich made with cheese, chicken, ham, beef, egg or nut butter – on bread that your child actually likes.

  3. Drinks should only be tap water or milk.

  4. An apple or a banana – chopped up for younger kids.


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