Research published ahead of print in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health reports that only one per cent of primary schoolchildren’s packed lunches meet the nutritional standards set for school meals in England.

Research shows that crisps, sweets, and sugary drinks are preferred to vegetables, fruit, and milk based products.

Typically, about half of UK schoolchildren eat a packed lunch brought from home. This represents 5.5 billion packed lunches eaten every year.

There are rising concerns that school lunches are not providing sufficiently healthy food choices. As a result, in 2006 new standards for the required healthy food groups were set out for prepared meals for all local authority schools in England.

These indicate that school lunches must include protein rich and low fat starchy foods, vegetables, fruit and dairy products. Sweets (confectionery), flavored snacks or artificially sweetened drinks should not be incorporated into meals.

In 2008, these principles were followed by supplementary government standards on the energy, fat, salt, vitamin and nutrient content for school meals.

Information was collected on the packed lunch content for just about 1,300 children. There were all aged between eight and nine and from 89 primary schools across the UK (76 in England, four in Scotland, six in Wales and three in Northern Ireland).

At least once a week, all the children took a packed lunch to school. Almost nine out of ten ate a packed lunch every day.

Records were taken about the type and quantity of foods for each child’s lunch box. On one day amounts of food were measured and weighed before and after lunch. The results were then compared with the government’s school meal standards.

Findings indicated that allowed flavored or sweet foods, vegetables, and permitted drinks (natural juice, milk, pure water) were the least likely to be provided. Sandwiches, sweets, flavored snacks and artificially sweetened drinks were the most common items.

Approximately one in three children was given a sandwich with a low protein filling. In addition, only one in ten children had sandwiches containing vegetables. Furthermore, only one in ten was given a separate portion of vegetables.

Results showed that the food category least likely to be eaten when provided was fruit; the one most likely to be eaten was confectionery.

Reports indicated that more than one in four children (27 percent) had a packed lunch containing sweets, savory snacks, and sugary drinks. Another four out of ten had sweets and snacks, but no sugary drink. Less than one in ten (8.1 percent) had none of these food categories in their lunchbox.

In conclusion, just 1.1 percent of the children’s packed lunches met all the required nutritional standards for school meals; an additional 5.1 percent met the 2006 five healthy food group standards.

Moreover, fewer than half of children’s packed lunches met the government’s 2008 nutrient standards, including levels of vitamin A, zinc, iron and folate.

The study indicated that, in general, girls tended to be given and consume more healthy foodstuffs than boys. Also, children at schools with fewer pupils eligible for free school meals had healthier packed lunches.

The authors comment that their findings supply “evidence that the quality of food in children’s packed lunches is poor… Few lunches contained all five healthy food groups, but most lunches contained restricted foods and drinks such as crisps and cakes.”

The researchers remark that the new standards for school meals are producing “drastic improvements” in lunches provided by primary schools. However, the same cannot be said for packed lunches.

“A cross-sectional survey of children’s packed lunches in the UK: food and nutrient based results”
C E L Evans, D C Greenwood, J D Thomas, J E Cade
Online First 2010
doi 10.1136/jech.2008.085977
J Epidemiol Community Health

Written by Stephanie Brunner (B.A.)