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Healthy swaps: lunch

With a little planning you can look forward to your packed lunches and enjoy a tasty, nutritious meal rather than a dried out sandwich. By choosing something from the four main food groups at each meal you can be sure your meals are healthy and well balanced.

  • starchy carbs (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes)
  • fruit and veg
  • protein-containing food (lean meat, fish, eggs and beans)
  • milk and dairy food (low-fat yogurts).

Here are some ideas for children's lunchboxes, cheap and easy tips for students, packed lunches on the go for adults and simple swaps for South Asian recipes.

Lunches on the go

Whether you take your lunch to work or eat on the go, here are some top swaps and ideas for healthy, balanced lunches.

  • Swap a canned drink for a diet version and save around six tsp sugar.
  • Cut back on fat by choosing baked crisps as a healthier alternative to fried.
  • Choose a two-finger chocolate wafer biscuit, rather than a standard chocolate bar, and save on both fat and calories.
  • Try a ham salad sandwich instead of a club sandwich to save 135Kcal and 16g of fat. Make your own and cut out even more fat by using less spread.
  • Open sandwiches reduce calories and fat by using half the amount of bread.
  • Pop a variety of breads in the freezer so you can vary your lunchtime meals. Bulk out wraps, bagels and sandwiches with salad veg. To add crunch, add a few chopped nuts or seeds.
  • Pack a few bread sticks, carrot batons, sticks of cucumber, peppers and reduced-fat hummus for a tasty snack. That way you won't be tempted to reach for the office biscuits.
  • Fruit is always a good idea for desserts. Try different types to add variety to your lunch. Bring in a few and keep on your desk to help you meet your five a day.
  • As an occasional treat malt loaf, a slice of fruit loaf, scone or teacake could be enjoyed particularly if you know you will be active and do not need to lose weight. These are healthier options compared to chocolate, biscuits and sweets. However if you want to lose weight take into account the extra calories they contain and adjust your diet during the rest of your day accordingly.

Here are some recipes from our recipe finder that are quick lunchtime staples.

South Asian ideas

Try these simple swaps for a healthier lunch.

  • Choose brown basmati rice instead of pilau or fried rice.
  • Stir-fry vegetables instead of cooking them in an oily curry.
  • Whichever type of dhal or beans you cook, it’s healthier if you cook them in a little bit of oil that’s high in unsaturated fat – such as olive, sunflower or rapeseed oil – instead of cooking it in a lot of oil or ghee.
  • Make khichdi with less rice and more mung – and add as little oil or ghee as possible.
  • Measure out small amounts of oils high in unsaturated fat instead of ghee when making dough for rotis or leave out the fat altogether. Olive, sunflower and rapeseed oils are good choices.
  • Use a vegetable-based spread on top of rotis instead of butter or ghee, and try spreading it on alternate ones only to cut back on the amount of fat you use.
  • Keep butter off the table, so you’re not tempted to add extra fat to daals, subjis, chapattis or parathas.

Packed lunches for children with Type 1 diabetes

If you're stuck for ideas for your child's packed lunch, here are some healthy suggestions. Remember, younger children won't need as much as older children, so adjust portion sizes to your child's age and appetite. On PE days they will need more, especially carbs, as they will be using up more energy.

  • Instead of sliced bread you could pack bagels, wraps, oat cakes, sandwich thins, pitta bread, square pitta bread, muffins or bread sticks. Freeze what you can so you always have something on standby especially as kids can be picky about what they want. Go for wholegrain varieties where possible.
  • It's useful to have a loaf of sliced bread in the freezer for emergencies. If your child's not keen on wholegrain breads you can buy '50/50 bread', which is half white and half wholegrain.
  • Fillings could include:


    • grated carrot and hummus
    • grated reduced-fat cheese
    • mayo and spring onion
    • sardines and tomato
    • banana and raisin sandwich
    • edam cheese and tomato salad
    • hummus and red pepper
    • tuna and sweetcorn
    • Quorn sausages and caramelised onion
    • lean ham and tomato salad
    • cottage cheese and apricots
    • egg mayo with diced red pepper and cucumber
  • For a change from bread, include pasta, rice, quinoa or couscous. Use leftover veg from the night before and add chopped meat, tinned fish, reduced-fat cheese, eggs or pulses to make a tasty salad.
  • Pop in some fresh fruit, like an apple or Satsuma, a small box of raisins (you can but larger sizes for older children), individual tins or pots of fruit in natural juice.
  • Kids need dairy foods for calcium, which help keep bones and teeth healthy. Many low-fat yogurts have added sugar, so include a diet yogurt or fromage frais. Reduced-fat cheese triangles and 'light babybel' are popular with kids, or save money by cutting up a small portion of reduced-fat cheese yourself.
  • Added extras could include a slice of malt loaf, a fruit scone, a teacake or a slice of fruit loaf. These are better choices than chocolate, crisps and biscuits, which have been banned from most schools anyway.
  • For drinks, offer water or sugar-free squash instead of sugary fizzy drinks, ordinary squash and fruit juice, as these all contain large amounts of sugar.


Sample kids lunchbox

  • Wholemeal pitta pizza – made with toasted pitta bread, topped with a tablespoon of tomato puree, grated reduced-fat cheese and sliced tomatoes
  • Slice of fruit bread
  • Pear
  • Carrot sticks
  • Water

Students on a budget

We know many students are strapped for cash One of the easiest ways to save is to swap expensive takeaways for home-cooked food. This could save £800 a year, according to the Office for National Statistics. When shopping, it’s a good idea to pool resources with your friends so you can buy and cook in bulk.

Here's some ideas to get you started:

  • Jacket potato filled with baked beans, jazzed up with some chili powder or cayenne pepper,  a few mushrooms and caramelised onion. 
  • Frittata/omelette, padded out with cheap veg such as sweetcorn, mushrooms, tomatoes and mixed veg. You can adapt your frittata to what veg you have available.
  • Mixed bean chilli. To save money, use ‘value’ range beans and swap fresh herbs for dried. You also don’t need to use coriander.
  • Pasta salads with cheap salad veg, or cooked frozen veg that has cooled. For protein add in pulses, tuna, chopped egg or reduced-fat cheese.
  • Vegetable chilli – delicious and cheap to make.
  • Soup – use a hand blender and whizz up any leftover veg, pre-cooked ‘value’ pulses and a tin of tomatoes. Flavour with any herbs and spices you have to taste. Transport around in a flask. Search for ‘Soup’ in our recipe finder for lots of healthy ideas.
  • Wraps filled with boiled egg, lean ham, tuna or hummus bulked out with cheap salad veg.
  • Channa dhal – lentils are a cheap, low-fat source of protein and they're packed full of fibre too. Again, you can save by leaving out the coriander.
  • Pasta and vegetable cheese
  • Saag aloo– if you don’t have fresh chilli, ginger or the spices you could add 1 tbsp of curry paste.


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