1. School Age
  2. Nutrition & fitness
  3. Healthy eating

School canteens and tuckshops: choosing healthy food

5-15 years

A lunch box from home is often a healthier option than buying from the school canteen or tuckshop. But if your child wants to use the canteen, you can help her make healthy choices. Here’s how.

Using the school canteen

You might like to let your child eat lunch from the school canteen once a week or fortnight, or on special occasions.

If your child enjoys an occasional canteen lunch, it’s a good idea to talk with your child about which canteen foods and drinks are healthy and which aren’t. You can also help him choose the healthiest food on the menu.

Giving your child a healthy breakfast and packing a healthy lunch are the best ways to make sure your child has the energy she needs to get through a busy school day. Packing your child’s lunch can also save you money.

Choosing healthy food from the canteen

Here are some healthy canteen options and ideas. If they’re available at your school canteen, these are the options to go for.

Sandwiches, rolls and wraps 
Encourage your child to choose a multigrain, wholemeal or high-fibre white sandwich, roll or wrap, with filling that includes salad and lean chicken or beef, fish, eggs or lentil patties.

Cold food 
Your canteen might serve fresh salads, sushi or rice paper rolls – yum!

Hot food 
Here are some healthy hot food options:

  • fresh soups with wholemeal bread rolls on the side
  • pasta or lasagne with fresh tomato, bolognaise or vegetable-based sauce
  • lentil and vegetable hotpot
  • vegetable, chicken or beef curry with rice
  • rice or noodles with lean meat and vegetables.

Snacks 
If your child wants to get a snack from the canteen, encourage him to choose options like these:

  • fruit salads or whole fruit
  • reduced-fat yoghurt and fruit
  • air-popped popcorn (not cooked in oil)
  • reduced-fat cheese with pita or wholemeal crackers
  • vegetable sticks with dip
  • boiled eggs
  • raisin or fruit bread.

It’s a good idea to pack a bottle with tap water for your child to drink and refill throughout the day. This is always healthier and cheaper than buying drinks from the canteen. But if your child wants to buy a drink at the canteen, encourage her to choose water or reduced-fat milk and soy drinks.

If you have a healthy food environment at home, it helps your child learn about making better choices when eating away from home.

Unhealthy canteen food and drinks

Foods with high amounts of sugar, saturated fat and salt aren’t healthy for your child.

These foods give your child a short energy boost that can leave him feeling tired for the rest of the day. They can also lead to unhealthy weight gain if your child eats too much of them.

Here are ‘sometimes’ foods that are best kept for lunch orders on special occasions:

  • all deep-fried foods, including chips, chicken nuggets and dim sims
  • hot pastries like sausage rolls and pies
  • cakes, slices and sweet breads like donuts
  • chocolates, lollies and chips
  • soft drinks, cordial, flavoured mineral water, sports waters, sports drinks, energy drinks, sweetened waters, flavoured milks, iced tea, breakfast drinks and fruit juice
  • coffee drinks – mocha, latte, cappuccino and so on – and coffee-flavoured milk drinks.

Vending machines at school 
Schools sometimes use vending machines to provide food and drinks. Food stocked in vending machines is often unhealthy – for example, soft drinks, lollies, chips and chocolate bars.

Why not send your child to school with an extra piece of fruit or some yoghurt instead? This might reduce the temptation to buy snacks from the vending machine. Or you might like to look at the food in the vending machine with your child and see whether there are any healthy options.

School canteen nutrition policy

Many school canteens have a nutrition policy.

Some schools have developed their policies based on the 2010 National Healthy School Canteens Guidelines, and others base their policies on their state nutrition guidelines for school canteens.

If you’re concerned about the nutritional quality of the food sold at your child’s tuckshop, you could ask your school about its canteen policy.

Safe foods at school canteens

All school canteens must follow careful food preparation procedures. Canteen providers must take proper steps to make sure foods are safe for children to eat.

Let your child know that when she buys food from the canteen, she should eat it straight away or put it in the fridge if there is one. These steps also help your child avoid food poisoning.

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Last updated or reviewed
21-04-2017

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Raising Children Network is supported by the Australian Government. Member organisations are the Parenting Research Centre and the Murdoch Childrens Research Institute with The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child Health.

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