Healthy Packed Lunch Ideas From The Doctor’s Kitchen

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As well as being a trained GP and working in emergency medicine, Dr Rupy Aujla has published three Doctor’s Kitchen cookbooks. His latest, Doctor’s Kitchen 3-2-1, contains simple, one-pot recipes that are full of plant-based goodness.

With the country opening up again after lockdown and children returning to school, Dr Aujla has launched a campaign to encourage parents to include three portions of fruit and vegetables in their kids’ packed lunches. “This tragic event marks an opportunity to reaffirm healthy eating; to improve our general health and wellbeing,” he says.

Although eating well won’t prevent any further pandemics, Dr Aujla sees it as the best way to increase our and our children’s resilience to disease. “We know that those worst afflicted by the pandemic were those with conditions linked to poor diet: obesity and other medical issues which are largely preventable.

“The packed lunch campaign is about reinforcing the importance of healthy eating from a really young age, and getting parents involved in a conversation with their kids so that we can all live healthier, happier lives.”

We spoke to Dr Aujla about why and how to improve children’s packed lunches, as well as getting tips on how to keep costs down, deal with fussy eaters, and become more creative with food.

Why is it so important to get more fruit and veg into our children’s lunchboxes?

For both adults and kids, increasing our fruit and veg intake is the best way of increasing antioxidant levels, and of ensuring we eat enough plant fibre which supports a healthy gut and immune system. We need to eat more colourful foods containing a higher micronutrient density and plant chemicals that help us stay healthy.

The end of lockdown restrictions in the UK should mark a conscious change in our approach to health and wellbeing, and not just among adults. I think this is a good opportunity for parents to take control of what they’re feeding their children.

If you look at a typical lunchbox, it’s full of refined sugars, a white bread sandwich, perhaps some sort of cheese dip. Highly processed food has become normalised and it shouldn’t be. We really need to be looking at improving the health of our children to prevent issues like cardiovascular disease, dementia and obesity later in life. Also, most people don’t know the extent of children’s dentistry issues: every year there are 40,000 episodes of children having teeth removed under general anaesthetic in the UK because of poor dental health. That is directly related to the quality of the food that we put into their lunchboxes.

How can we make fruit and veg fun to eat?

I think instead of being authoritarian with our children – “you must eat a banana” or “you must eat hummus” – get them involved in the conversation. Do they like particular colours or textures, a bit of crunch, or silky-smooth dips? If they like sweet things, work out how you can mimic that with dried fruit instead of chocolate bars. Make sure that the kids know what’s going into their packed lunch and that they’re on board with it. If they’re not, they won’t eat it and it will go to waste.

Do you have any suggestions for dealing with fussy eaters?

Getting them to choose what they’re going to eat is really important, but also encourage them to try things they may previously have decided they don’t like. Just because they didn’t like corn or broccoli or seeds earlier in life doesn’t necessarily mean they still won’t like them a few years later.

You can try preparing veg in different ways: roasting, sautéing, blending. Work on introducing foods at home before you put it in their packed lunch. But if all else fails you can always hide it! Blend veggies into dips, into sauces and so on.

Does it matter if they mostly eat the same vegetables (or fruit) on repeat? How much variety do they need?

You want to try to get as many different types of plants into your weekly diet as possible. If they’re very fussy and they’re only eating one thing then that’s OK, but variety is definitely what we should be aiming to achieve. You want them to be eating somewhere between 15 and 20 different varieties every week. That may sound unachievable, but it includes nuts and seeds, different types of greens, colourful vegetables and fruit – they all offer an abundance of plant chemicals which our bodies need.

Some parents may be worried about the additional cost of buying so many different types of foods. How would you advise parents struggling with shopping costs?

That’s a legitimate concern, especially with food insecurity on the rise. But often the cheapest ingredients on the shelf are the most nutrient-dense, such as red cabbage, seasonal veg, even the root veggies. These are all fantastically nutrient-dense ingredients that we need more of in our diets. But it’s really not about exotic ingredients: everyday, affordable and accessible ingredients such as an apple or a carrot are the key to good health.

I’ve also made a BBC series, Thrifty Cooking in the Doctor’s Kitchen, where we create meals for less than £1 per person, and they all contain three types of veggies.

Working parents are often short on time – and therefore creativity – when it comes to preparing packed lunches. Do you have any tips to help them?

When it comes to culinary creativity the shows on the BBC are fantastic, and there’s a bunch of them on my website as well. For kids’ packed lunches, I would say think of three different categories that you want to put in them: a dip; some sort of robust vegetable, crunchy crudités for example; and something sweet, either dried fruit or whole fruit. With those combinations, it’s actually quite easy to get three portions in your kids’ lunchboxes.

Many schools have banned nuts and seeds from lunchboxes because of allergy sufferers. That means no hummus, for some. Do you have any tips on alternatives?

This is a bit of an issue as nut and seed allergies are on the rise especially among children. You may not be able to put nuts and seeds in their lunchbox, but you can give them plenty of nuts and seeds when they’re at home – as long as they’re not allergic, of course.

An alternative to hummus, which traditionally contains sesame seeds, would be blending up whole beans instead of seeds. You could make a white bean hummus with olive oil and seasoning and some other flavourings. You can also give them whole veggies, chopped into matchsticks, and dried fruits instead of nuts.

I think we need to make it cool! Veganism is definitely on the rise, although a vegan meal doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy meal. You can do some really fun vegan stuff and make it healthy, too.

I think we need to do some lateral thinking – subsidised fruit or schools offering it for it free. Start a campaign to make school meals more interesting, like a five-veg lasagne, or bean burgers – there’s lots you can do. I was talking to Prue Leith about this the other day and she visited a whole load of schools which had massively reduced their food bill by going largely vegetarian, apart from Fridays. It’s a fantastic initiative. They make the food cool, appealing to the kids, and mimic what they would otherwise want to eat.

You can find recipes, podcasts, TV programmes and more on Dr Rupy Aujla’s website, The Doctor’s Kitchen

Camilla Artault
Content editor

Camilla Artault is a writer and keen runner. She has covered women’s running gear – testing leggings, jackets, running bras, tops and shorts – for Coach since 2018, as well as interviewing experts and writing about a range of health and lifestyle topics.