/ Food & Drink, Health, Parenting

Butter sandwiches? Peperami? We peek into school lunchboxes

I went to my five year old nephew’s school a couple of weeks back to look at the packed lunches and to judge the best six out of around 40. I found some great healthy lunches, but others that left a lot to be desired…

The parents knew I would be coming in to have a look at the children’s lunches so I was expecting them to pull out all the stops to impress. Some of them did – one little boy had a lunch of a slice of bread, some mackerel and veg. It later transpired that he has quite a few allergies so his parents have to be pretty inventive.

It was great to see not just lots of fruit but also chopped carrots, cucumber, cherry tomatoes and peppers in lunch boxes helping them to reach their five-a-day and also get used to including fruit and veg in their meals. I also saw lots of lunches with cheese portions or yoghurt which is great as these little ones need to make sure they’re getting enough calcium.

Sugar, fat, salt, and snacks

But I was taken aback to see sugary drinks (500ml bottles of Ribena), bags of Haribo sweets and large packets of crisps in some boxes. One child had a Peperami stick in his lunch box and when I asked another what filling he had in his sandwiches he replied ‘butter’.

My son is only two and has a hot meal at nursery so I don’t have the worry of making a packed lunch every day. I hope when he’s old enough to go to school he’ll eat the lunches there. I would dread having to think of healthy, balanced and affordable meals (that he’d be willing to eat!) to give him every day, so I do understand that it can be a real struggle for parents.

But it got me thinking – is a Peperami really a suitable item for a five-year-old’s packed lunch? According to the Food Standards Agency criteria it is high in fat, high in saturated fat and high in salt. A 25g Peperami contains 0.9g salt, around a quarter of a 5-10 year old’s maximum recommended daily salt intake.

Should we ban treats from lunchboxes?

I know of some schools that don’t allow chocolate, sweets, crisps or biscuits in packed lunches. The children’s lunchboxes are checked by teachers and treats are confiscated until the end of the day. The head teacher at the school I visited said that they didn’t ban any of these items but asked parents to be responsible and only allow the odd treat, not on a daily basis.

Do you find it a struggle to pack healthy and appetising lunches for your children, or even yourself? Do you think schools should ban ‘unhealthy’ items from packed lunches, or is it OK to give children the odd lunchtime treat?

Should schools ban unhealthy foods from packed lunches?

No – that’s too extreme, it’s up to the parents what they pack (57%, 110 Votes)

Yes – it’s important that parents are encouraged to pack healthy meals (43%, 82 Votes)

Total Voters: 193

Loading ... Loading ...

While I agree that children should be encouraged to eat a healthy diet, I am a little alarmed that teachers should be inspecting lunchboxes. I appreciate that schools can dictate what children should wear and how they should behave, but I confess to being a little surprised that they can inspect lunchboxes. I would have thought that some parents would object – and others might be very grateful if their child has made a trip to the sweet shop.

I am also not convinced that it is a good idea to try too hard to discourage children from eating junk foods. Age restrictions make cigarettes and alcohol desirable for the underage, so efforts to discourage junk food could be counterproductive.

A better approach might be to expect children of all ages to eat school meals. If everyone is expected to eat the same (unless a child has specific dietary needs) then this should help discourage fussy eaters and at least they would get one nutritious meal each day. School meals helped give me a lifelong dislike of custard and cabbage (not together of course) but I did eat them at school.

A limited amount of saturated fat will do little harm, but I would rather have mine as chocolate rather than grease on bread or fat on untrimmed meat. I’m sure that kids would agree.

Dawn says:
19 January 2013

This is an interesting article and lots of schools vary in their approach and policies to packed lunch. But ultimately it’s the parents choice based on a number of factors. Don’t forget that the packed lunch is only a snapshot of a total daily intake, which school doesn’t have visibility of, and that the daily diet is balanced. Extremes either way benefit no one in the long run.
That said school lunches have moved on in recent years in both choice and quality and are a perfectly good option if so chosen.
Choice and balance (diet, attitudes and approach) are whats needed. Less so rules, regulations and policing.

Maureen says:
25 April 2013

Having worked in various Schools and seen what children bring for their Lunch and in most cases they do have chocolate bars and crisps, one child had just bread and jam every day, I really think that the Government should consider giving all Children Free School dinners, and recover the money in other ways , they should always have the meals cooked on the premises with a choice for children who are vegetarian or have allergies to certain foods, I have seen children just eat the chocolate and leave everything else in their lunch box, the only drinks should be milk or water as most other drinks are high in sugar and make children hyperactive, Most of the School children I have worked with were between 3 and 11. It’s also a case of equality and children should be made to feel equal to their friends, its ok saying they may get a balanced diet at home, but the May has a big question mark and some children go to School and have had no breakfast so they need their fruit and Milk during their break , If we looked after our children better the Country wouldn’t be in such a mess,

olivia says:
12 June 2021

I feel like its extreme to inspect kids lunchboxes, i feel like its ok to teach kids about staying healthy but overall its kind of up to the parents what they pack. I know this because a school i worked in looked at kids lunch and “approved” when they brought it in. The kids were about 10-11 so they were old enough to understand that this was ridiculous. The rule stopped after about 2 months because lots of angry parents were calling the school either to say dont check their kids lunch or give them back the portion lunch deemed unhealthy that they paid for. And the kids were really annoyed that the treat they got at lunch was taken away from them. On top of that, loads of kids organized a day where they wouldnt bring any lunch as a protest. Obviously the school called up the parents of the kids who didnt bring any lunch, turns out the parents were totally on board with the idea and had given the kids a big breakfast to make up for it. I wasnt a fan of the rule in the first place and was delighted to see it backfire spectacularly.

I think school dinners should be so good that all children will want to have them. The price should be reasonable and the eligibility for free and reduced-cost school meals should be made fairer. I know that many village schools are too small to have dining halls and kitchens but practical arrangements can usually be made to provide a proper sit-down lunch.

I am more concerned with what I have seen parents loading into their shopping trolleys as they do the weekly shop. Bumper packs of crisps and giant bottles of fizzy drinks – and then they hand in at the checkout the empty tasty treats packets that their loved ones have been grazing on during the previous half hour.

I know this topic/thread is nine years old now but the practice of school teachers ‘vetting’ packed lunches does come across as rather draconian and ‘nanny state’ IMO, plus surely the teachers must have better and far more important things to be doing instead.

Whilst I do agree that more work needs to be done to encourage kids to eat more healthily and to reduce obesity in general, these policies, as others have already pointed out upthread, can easily backfire.

I have ASD and I developed a severe eating disorder due to school meal hell when I was about 6-7 years old, as I was force-fed food I absolutely hated to the point where I gagged endlessly and was threatened with corporal punishment for doing so (this was before 1986 when school CP was outlawed in the UK).

I also recall kids being punished and ridiculed for vomiting at school by teachers back then, plus often denied toilet visits, even in an emergency situation.

Little wonder that emetophobia (fear of vomiting) and eating disorders are far more commonplace within our society than we might realise, especially following many past traumatic incidents as children at school in particular, and it going on to being an intergenerational cycle, especially where the fear of shame and humiliation is
concerned, as well as the vomiting, toileting and eating issues themselves
are concerned.