The A, B, C, D & E of Kid’s Lunch Box Nutrition

This blog post was written by Integrative Nutrition Health Coach – Catherine Barnhoorn.

Catherine is an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and the author of award-winning nutrition and cookbook ‘Mila’s Meals: The Beginning & The Basics’. Much of the information in this blog post comes from her book (so no, the book is not just for babies!). She has presented her Love the Lunch Box talk & workshop at schools and wellness events around South Africa. What follows is some of the most important information.
Find out more at:

Get the Mila’s Meals Lunchbox Meal Plan here.

The A, B, C, D & E of kid’s lunchbox nutrition

Do you know which nutrients are needed in your child’s lunch box for a day of learning, concentration and activity? Do you chose lunch box foods according to these requirements? Do you try make it nutrient-dense? Or do you just pack foods which you know will be eaten because you’re so over the lunch box coming home looking the same as it did when it left the house in the morning?

Does this lunch box look familiar?

Would it surprise you to know that there are 13.6 teaspoons of sugar in this lunch box? Do you think it’s feasible to expect a child to sit still and concentrate after consuming 13.6 teaspoons of sugar?

And sugar is not the only immune system and behaviour-influencing ingredient in this box! Read our Real Talk: What’s Hiding in the Lunch Box? (coming next week) blog post for more information on what shouldn’t be in the lunch box and why.

For now, let’s unpack the lunchbox and what your growing child needs… then repack it with delicious AND nutritious options!

Food vs Nutrients

Filling tummies is easy. But… the body doesn’t need / use food, it needs and uses nutrients! Which is why someone with a tummy full of junk food can be as malnourished as someone who has not eaten at all.


suffering from malnutrition.

“Lack of sufficient nutrients in the body. Malnutrition occurs when the body doesn’t get enough nutrients. Causes include a poor diet, digestive conditions or another disease. Symptoms are fatigue, dizziness and weight loss. Untreated malnutrition can cause physical or mental disability.Treatment must address any underlying conditions and replace missing nutrients.”

Source: Mayo Clinic

What nutrients do children need in their lunch box?

This list is a long one – which highlights the need for a nutrient-dense lunch box! There is no ways your child can get all these nutrients in one meal (why do we tend to only serve vegetables at dinner-time?). 

And no – a multivitamin is not a suitable shortcut. Our bodies absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients much better when they come from food, rather than from vitamin and mineral supplements.


Protein is essential for growth, development, strength, energy and brain power. It plays an integral part in nearly all the body’s processes. Protein is responsible for the manufacture of hormones, enzymes, antibodies (infection-fighters), and muscle tissue. 

Since children are growing faster now than at any other time in their lives, protein requirements are higher per kilogram of weight for babies and children than for adults.

Also – protein is the most filling of the macronutrients.

Excellent protein-rich additions to the lunch box include:

  • Eggs
  • Fish: Tuna, Sardines, Salmon
  • Meat: chicken, lamb or beef
  • Dairy: cheese, yoghurt
  • Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, peas, beans
  • Grains: quinoa, millet, sorghum, buckwheat, teff, amaranth, 
  • Nuts & Nut Butters: macadamia, almond, cashew, peanut, pistachio
  • Bone broth
  • Seaweeds: dulse, spirulina, chlorella, nori
  • Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds
  • Superfoods: moringa powder, cacao, wheatgrass, mesquite, goji berries, maca, mesquite
  • Vegetables: broccoli, spinach


Including Omega-3 (DHA, EPA, ALA), Omega-6 & Omega-9

Healthy fats are:

  • A source of energy
  • Aid the absorption of vitamins A, D, E, and K 
  • Are crucial for the development and optimal functioning of the brain and eyes, heart and immune system. (1)
  • Help the development and regulation of the nervous system

Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is one of the most important omega-3 fatty acids. It is a major component of the fats in our brains and plays a critical role in neurological and visual development. Our bodies can only make a small amount of DHA from other fatty acids, so we need to consume it directly from food or a supplement. (2)

Deficiencies of omega-3s in children are linked to cognitive and psychosocial problems such as attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), motor skill dysfunction, depression and dyslexia. (3) (4)

Excellent healthy-fat additions to the lunch box include:

  • Nuts: macadamia, almond, cashew, peanut, pistachio, walnuts, brazil nuts
  • Seeds: pumpkin, sunflower, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, sesame seeds
  • Oils: olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, macadamia oil, hemp seed oil
  • Dairy: full fat, free-range, no added sugar!
  • Butter/Ghee: grass-fed, spread on sandwiches
  • Home-made mayonnaise
  • Olives
  • Avocado
  • Eggs (organic)
  • Coconut: yoghurt, oil, milk
  • Seafood: wild-caught salmon, sardines and herring
  • Vegetables: cauliflower, spinach, sea vegetables (seaweeds)
  • Superfoods: raw cacao, cacao butter, moringa, maca, chlorella, spirulina


  •    Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel for active, growing children
  •    Carbohydrates help the body to utilise fat
  •    Carbohydrates use protein to build and repair tissue

Choose quality, nutrient-dense, complex, unrefined carbohydrates over simple, refined carbohydrates! Complex carbs pack in more nutrients than simple carbs, they’re higher in fibre and digest more slowly – making them more filling. Complex carbohydrates ensure balanced energy levels that are important for stability of mood, avoiding fatigue and difficulties in concentration.

If sufficient amounts are not provided, growth may be stunted (because protein will be used to meet your little one’s energy needs instead of being used for growth).

Excellent unrefined, complex carbohydrate additions to the lunch box include:

  • Whole Fruits: apples, berries, citrus fruit, bananas, pears, all berries, tomatoes, pineapple, prunes
  • Vegetables: carrot, cucumber, beetroot, parsnips, sweet potato, potato, butternut, parsnip, broccoli, spinach
  • Nuts: macadamia, almond, cashew, peanut, pistachio, walnuts, brazil nuts
  • Seeds: sunflower seeds, pumpkins seeds, chia seeds, hemp seeds
  • Wholegrains: brown or wild rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, teff, oats, amaranth
  • Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, black beans, green beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, peas
  • Superfoods: mesquite, lucuma

d. MICRONUTRIENTS (Vitamins & Minerals)

Vitamins are necessary for energy production, immune function, blood clotting and many other body functions. 

Minerals play an important role in growth, bone health, fluid balance and several other body processes.


Let’s take a closer look at that all-encompassing (often over-looked) micronutrient group…

Essential vitamins that kids and teens need for different areas of growth and well-being:

  • Vitamin A is important for healthy skin and normal growth & development, optimal immune function, and it also helps vision and tissue repair. 
    • Vitamin A can be found in rich quantities in yellow and orange fruits and vegetables, green (leafy) vegetables, dairy products, eggs and liver.
  • Vitamin B’s – there’s eight them! All B vitamins help you convert the protein, carbohydrates, and fats you eat into energy.
      • Vitamin B1 helps release energy from foods, so that the nervous system and muscles work properly.
        • You can find Vitamin B1 in sunflower seeds, dried beans, dried peas, green peas, lentils, oats, nuts, broccoli, onions, carrots, kale, tomatoes, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, raw cacao, maca and moringa.
      • Vitamin B2 helps break down fats, protein and carbohydrates, promotes iron absorption and assists the other antioxidants.
        • Vitamin B2 can be found in eggs, turkey, chicken, salmon, tuna, meat, nuts, brown rice, raw cacao, lucuma and moringa.
      • Vitamin B3 helps you absorb the nutrients in food and promotes growth and energy.
        • Vitamin B3 can be found in eggs, turkey, chicken, salmon, tuna, meat, nuts, brown rice, raw cacao, lucuma and moringa.
      • Vitamin B5 (also called pantothenic acid), is necessary for making blood cells, and it helps you convert the food you eat into energy.
        • Vitamin B5 can be found in broccoli, cabbage, white and sweet potatoes, whole-grain cereals, mushrooms, nuts, beans, peas, lentils, meats, poultry, dairy products, eggs
      • Vitamin B6 breaks down protein into energy, helps with red blood cell production, helps with brain function and assists with detoxification of unwanted chemicals from the blood.
        • Vitamin B6 can be found in beef, tuna, salmon, turkey, chicken, sweet potato, potatoes, spinach, banana, sunflower seeds and moringa.
      • Vitamin B9 (commonly known as folate) helps you absorb protein, supports the brain and nervous system and form new red blood cells and DNA.
        • Folate can be found in green leafy vegetables, lentils, beans, broccoli, liver and whole grains.
      • Vitamin B12 helps with red blood cell and energy production, is integral to healthy brain and nervous system development, promotes optimal growth and is a co-factor in the production of DNA.
        • Vitamin B12 is mostly found in animal foods such as meat, fish, eggs, yoghurt. Vegetarian sources of vitamin B12 include nutritional yeast, Nori, chlorella and Shitake mushrooms. (5)

Did you know?

A vitamin B12 deficiency can lead to a form of anaemia

Vegans can find it hard to get enough vitamin B12 in their diets and might need a supplement.

  • Vitamin C is well known as an antioxidant that helps you fight infections but is has far more functions than just that. It is also essential for building collagen (which strengthens tissue, muscles, and skin), iron absorption, keeping teeth, bones, and gums healthy. Vitamin C is necessary to make certain neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are the signals that carry thoughts, feelings, and commands around our brains and throughout our nervous system. It is also used in to produce serotonin, a hormone that plays a critical role in wide variety of body systems, including the nervous system, endocrine system, immune system, and digestive system. Also known as The Happy Hormone – serotonin is the key hormone that stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness.
    • For healthy doses of vitamin C, buy any of NutriVita’s juices or smoothies
    • You can find healthy amounts of vitamin C in most fruits – especially papaya, strawberries, pineapple, oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits, kiwifruit – bell peppers, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, baobab powder, camu camu powder and moringa.
  • Vitamin D helps the body form and maintain strong teeth and bones by assisting with the absorption of minerals such as calcium. Vitamin D is necessary for optimum immunity and for blood sugar control.
    • Adequate exposure to sunlight (on bare skin without sunscreen) is a way to get vitamin D. Sunlight stimulates the vitamin, which naturally occurs in the skin, to become active in the body. 
    • Food sources of vitamin D include cod liver oil, fish, eggs, liver, butter, ghee, mushrooms and hemp seeds.
  • Vitamin E is a powerful antioxidant that supports your immune system and helps with the development of healthy skin, nerves, muscles, circulation, and eyes. 
    • Vitamin E can be found in butter or ghee, egg yolks, meat, chicken, nuts, avocado, sunflower seeds, almonds, sweet potatoes, dark green leafy vegetables, raw cacao, maca and hemp seeds.
  • Vitamin K. Did you know that there are two types of vitamin K with very different roles? We are familiar with vitamin K1 and its role in blood clotting. But vitamin K2 plays a vitally important role too. Vitamin K2 is the calcium regulator. It improves bone health and density, protects against tooth decay (by assisting in the remineralising of teeth) and protects against calcification of the arteries and heart disease. Vitamin K2 is made by the bacteria living in your microbiome – another reason why a healthy gut flora and probiotics are so important.
    • Vitamin K1 can be found in leafy green plant foods like kale, spinach, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, green cabbage, beetroot leaves, parsley and kelp.
    • Vitamin K2 can be found in grass-fed animal foods and cultured/fermented foods. For example, butter, ghee, duck fat, egg yolk, liver, cod liver oil, emu oil, sauerkraut, natto, milk kefir and certain cheeses (Gouda, Brie, and Edam)


Essential minerals that kids and teens need for different areas of growth and well-being:

  • Calcium is essential for the proper development of bones and teeth, for blood clotting and for good nerve, muscle and heart function.
    • You get calcium from salmon, sardines (eaten with bones), almonds, green leafy vegetables, beetroot leaves, baobab powder, sesame seeds, chia seeds. raw cacao, maca, lucuma, moringa, spirulina and hemp seeds. And of course from dairy products.
  • Magnesium plays a role in more than 300 enzyme reactions within your body! It is vital for the growth and maintenance of teeth and bones, maintains healthy blood sugar levels and promotes the development and functioning of a healthy heart and nervous system. 
    • Magnesium can be found in sea vegetables (e.g. kelp and dulse), nuts, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, spinach, quinoa, buckwheat, blackstrap molasses, green beans, oats, banana, lentils, avocado, baobab, raw cacao, maca, moringa and hemp seeds. Protein rich foods aid the absorption of magnesium.

Did you know?

Stress depletes magnesium.

Very importantly in this time of chronic stress (thanks COVID) – magnesium is the Relax Mineral! 

Anything that is tight, irritable, crampy, and stiff — whether it is a body part or a mood – could be a sign of magnesium deficiency. It is an antidote to stress!

  • Iodine is essential for normal growth and tissue development, helps control the way your cells make energy and use oxygen and is vital for thyroid health and for the production of the hormones made by the thyroid gland.
    • You get iodine from seafood, sea vegetables (such as kelp, nori, kombu, and wakame), eggs, strawberries, prunes, maca, cow’s milk and yoghurt.
  • Iron is especially important for brain function and red blood cell production, it also helps carry oxygen around the body, and it supports proper metabolism for muscles and other active organs
    • You get iron from lentils, meat, liver, egg yolks, chicken, seafood, dried beans, green leafy vegetables, parsley, olives, whole grains, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, blackstrap molasses, cumin, turmeric, sea vegetables (seaweeds), baobab powder, raw cacao, maca, lucuma, moringa and hemp seeds.

Did you know?

Children are at higher risk of iron deficiency, mainly because they need more iron when they go through growth spurts.

Anaemia and pre-anaemia (weak iron status or ferritin with normal haemoglobin level) will cause peculiar cravings (a condition called pica), and at the same time, make appetite overall weaker and more picky. (6)

  • Zinc helps with growth, wound healing, vision, skin health and immune system function. Many of the body’s hormones and enzymes depend on zinc to perform their functions.
    • You get zinc from eggs, beef, lamb, chicken, turkey, seafood, broth, quinoa, oats, lentils, cashew nuts, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, mushrooms, spinach, asparagus, green peas, parsley, Brussels sprouts, sea vegetables, (seaweeds), raw cacao, moringa and hemp seeds.

Did you know?

A zinc deficiency tends to worsen oral texture aversions, gagging, and refusal of anything but that one favoured texture (usually, crunchy starchy snack food) and gagging when eating mixed foods. 

Source – Judy Converse (MPH RD LDN)

  • Selenium is one of the most important disease-fighting nutrients in the body! It is also essential for many body processes and assists in the prevention of heart disease, cancer, and inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
    • Selenium can be found in Brazil nuts, seafood (tuna, shrimp, sardines, salmon), chicken, turkey, lamb, beef, liver, eggs, brown rice, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, moringa, broccoli, cabbage and mushrooms (crimini and shiitake).
  • Phosphorous is required for the basic processes of life – from energy storage to the formation of bones and teeth and a healthy metabolism, Phosphorous enables the utilisation of many B-complex vitamins, maintains the calcium balance and ensures proper muscle and nerve function
    • Phosphorous can be found in dried beans, peas, nuts, pumpkin seeds and hemp seeds.
  • Copper is required for normal growth and optimal health. It plays a role in the formation of the connective tissue and is required for the normal functioning of muscles, and the immune and nervous systems.
    • Copper can be found in sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, cashew nuts, walnuts, shiitake mushrooms, lentils, beans, leafy green veggies, millet, buckwheat, beetroot, avocado, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, kiwifruit, pear, raw cacao and moringa (to name but a few!).
  • Manganese is vital to many important antioxidant processes in human metabolism. It is also important for proper bone formation, protects the skin from UV light, assists in collagen production for healthy skin and helps control blood sugar levels.
    • Manganese can be found in miso, garlic, basil, peppermint, thyme, dill, parsley, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper, turmeric, oats, quinoa, buckwheat, millet, brown rice, garbanzo beans, spinach, kale, pineapple, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, flaxseeds, sea vegetables (seaweeds), mushrooms (shiitake and crimini) and moringa.
  • Chromium is only required in very small amounts but still plays an essential part of metabolic processes that regulate blood sugar and metabolism. 
    • Chromium can be found in broccoli, oats, green beans, meat, whole grains, romaine lettuce, ripe tomatoes and black pepper.


Water is the cheapest and easiest way to improve your and your children’s health and physical and mental well-being – and yet also one of the most impactful!

Researchers from the University of Connecticut’s human performance laboratory found that dehydration affects cognition, concentration and the general ability to think clearly and control mood.

If you or your child are even mildly dehydrated, the effects can be headaches, lack of energy, weight gain, lack of cleansing and detoxification, a weakened immune response, getting colds and flus easily, and feeling lethargic or even experiencing brain fog. None of these are helpful in the current pandemic or during a school-day!

The hydration requirements by age are:

  • 4 to 8 years: 5 cups of water/day 
  • 9 to 12 years: 7 to 8 cups of water/day 
  • 14 to 18 years: 8 to 11 cups of water/day

And the parents:

  • Women: 9 cups of water/day
  • Men: 13 cups of water/day


PS: You will need to drink more water if you live in a hot climate, exercise often, or have a fever, diarrhea, or vomiting.


Remember… Not all water is created equal! Unfortunately tap water needs to go through a necessary disinfection process. In South Africa this includes chemicals such as chlorine that can leave potentially carcinogenic by-products behind. The Environmental Working Group (EWG)’s comprehensive Tap Water Database shows that the tap water can contain up to 300 potentially dangerous chemicals. 

Groundwater sources can be contaminated with contaminants such as microplastics, pesticide and antibiotic residues and then travels through kilometres of pipeline, picking up contaminants such as BPA and/ lead along the way. (7) (8) (9)

The best way to guarantee that you are drinking water which is healthy would be to install a carbon filter water purification system.

Add one of our delicious, micronutrient-dense veggie juices to the lunchbox for a hydration and nutrient boost!

Eat your hydration…

Staying hydrated goes beyond just the water you drink. Foods can make up around 20 percent of your total fluid requirements each day. Not only do fruits and vegetables contain water, but they can also repair electrolyte imbalance, which helps your body stay hydrated. 

Some of the most hydrating foods include: celery, watermelon, cucumber, kiwi, bell peppers, citrus fruit, carrots, pineapple, iceberg lettuce, radishes, tomatoes, cauliflower, spinach, berries and broccoli.

Nutrient-dense beverages such as nut milks, vegetable juices, smoothies and herbal teas are composed mostly of water and can also count towards sufficient hydration. Added bonus – they are an easy and delicious way to get the micronutrients into your children without them having to reluctantly chew them at dinner time!

Lunch Box Packing Tips

Making the lunch box packing quick, easy and stress-free!

  • When packing a lunch box, focus on high quality protein and health fats. This is what will keep the tummies fuller for longer and the brain switched on!
  • Plan your weekly dinners according to what leftovers can be used in the lunchbox (cook once, eat many times!). For example… roast chicken for dinner – if you cook two you will have cold chicken for sandwiches.
  • The freezer is your friend! Batch cook a few things every second week and store them in the freezer. For example: pancakes, bread, breadsticks, muffins, dips and patés. Also stock your freezer with Nutrivita smoothies, juices and soups! Simply take them out the night before to defrost.
  • Take the pressure off the lunch box by providing a nutrient-dense, high protein, high fat breakfast. Superfood smoothies for the win here!
  • In Summer, pack the lunchbox in a cooler bag with an ice brick to keep the food fresh.
  • In Winter, send soups to school in a flask.
  • Include nutrient-dense Snacky Bits (all protein-rich and/or nutrient-dense): roasted chickpeas, nuts, fruit, kale chips, biltong, gummy sweets (homemade, healthy – recipe on the Mila’s Meals website!) 

So now that you know all this 👆, you can pack a lunch box that looks like this 👇

But wait, that’s not all!

Be sure to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Instagram, as we spend the month of September unpacking the lunch box and sharing more Bite Size Lunchbox Tips.

We’ll be sharing tips on:

    • Vegan Protein Power
    • Nutrient-dense Lunchbox Snacks
    • Hydration / Water and Juice
    • Beware! / Hidden Nasties in the Lunch Box
    • + an awesome giveaway!


Each person’s physical, emotional, and spiritual condition is unique. The information in this article is intended for your educational use only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Please consult your doctor for matters pertaining to your specific health and diet. The author of this article is not held responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use or misuse of any information, suggestions or procedures described herein. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.

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