/ Food & Drink, Parenting

What’s really lurking in your child’s lunchbox?

Lunch box full of processed children's food

Do you know the true nutritional content of your child’s school lunchbox? If you opt for foods that are specifically aimed at children, you may be shocked to hear that they’re not as healthy as they make out…

After all the hoo-ha about school meals from Jamie Oliver a few years ago you’d be forgiven for thinking that, by now, most school children are happily tucking in to healthy school meals.

You’d be wrong.

The popularity of packed lunches

We spoke to 1,000 parents and over half (54%) still pack a lunch for their kids. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – unless that box is packed with the wrong kind of food.

‘We’ve found all too often that foods promoted as good choices for school lunchboxes are anything but,’ explains our food expert Sue Davies. ‘While some are obviously unhealthy snacks, the sugar, salt or fat content in others is not always obvious and you really need to scrutinise the labels.’

Sadly, eight in ten parents who gave their child a packed lunch told us they included these kinds of pre-packed ‘children’s foods’ in the lunchbox – you know the ones: Dairylea Lunchables; Frubes; Fruit Shoots.

The problem is, they’re marketed brilliantly, so kids open up their lunchbox and willingly eat what’s inside, but I’d bet that many parents just don’t realise the true nutritional content (or the lack of) that these foods contain.

The truth about children’s food

Take a Petit Filous Frube, for example. Yoghurt in a tube – how unhealthy can that be? Would you be shocked to learn it contains almost 15% sugar? I know I was.

And that’s nothing compared to Fruit Factory Fruit Strings, which are almost 50% sugar – each 20g serving contains 9.6g sugar. But the absolute shocker for me is the four teaspoons of sugar in Robinsons Fruit Shoot Juice (blackcurrant and apple). Not only is this a quarter of a five- to ten-year-old’s guideline daily amount of sugar, it’s also a product that sells itself on the basis of having ‘no artificial colours, flavours or sweeteners’.

So what’s the answer? ‘As with all processed foods, we’d like to see clear traffic light labelling on the front so it’s obvious what’s a healthy choice and what isn’t,’ says Sue. ‘But it’s also important that food companies are more responsible in the way they market foods.’

I couldn’t agree more. My daughter is still young enough to be ignorant to these products, but it won’t be long until she’s at school and peer pressure kicks in. That doesn’t mean I’ll cave in and fill her lunchbox with these baddies, but it will make it harder to ensure she eats a healthy, balanced lunch everyday.

Have you used this kind of food to fill your child’s lunchbox – and are you shocked to hear what’s actually in them? Are your children so hooked on the sugar content and blinded by marketing spin that they won’t eat anything else, or have you managed to stick to healthier options?


Is there a better example of business and its total lack of scruples out there?
Profits made at the expense of children’s health, disgusting!

School Food Trust says:
1 September 2011

Making healthy packed lunches which give children the variety they need can take a lot of time and effort. In fact, we’ve estimated that if you want to make a packed lunch which meets the same nutritional standards as school meals, you could spend the equivalent of eight days in the kitchen across the school year!

Research consistently shows that school meals are the more nutritious option and when you look at how the prices compare in your analysis, it has to be food for thought for parents wanting to give their children healthy lunches and save time and money this September.

We’ve recommended some packed lunch menus which meet the same nutritional standards as primary school meals.

The School Food Trust’s research shows that when children eat a healthier lunch in a decent environment, they are more focused and on-task in their afternoon lessons.

David says:
1 September 2011

Clearly you missed the various programmes and documentaries about how bad school dinners are! Pie and chips, pizza and chips, xyz and chips. The quality is attrocious. I would rather pack a lunch any day!

Anonymous at the SFT: I applaud what you’re trying to do, but alienating conscientious parents who’re trying to BETTER the school lunch is not your best way to keep support! On your figures, a packed lunch takes 15-20 minutes a day to prepare (180 lunches taking, say, 56 hours). Right? And how long would your suggested meals take?

I would have thought an unhealthy lunch would take less than five minutes to pack, and I’ve never had a problem in preparing sandwiches for two, apple, satsuma, sliced carrot and broccoli florets, for example, in under ten minutes. Yes: that’s no drink (water is free and better) no pudding and no sugar item for after. You’d probably say that a school lunch eaten at the same table is far better for them both! And on arriving home, an honest declaration that there was no food cheating will earn a prize – which won’t be sweets!

Your menus are very good, except for allowing refined sugar (eg, in yoghurt) and not differentiating between complex and slow-release carbohydrates and the refined kind (like white bread, and pasta or potato), which gives almost as fast as sugar hit as sugar itself.

The other David has pointed out the problem with menu choices in most secondary schools and rather less primaries: even if ‘healthy’ is available, so is the junk. And even immense effort by conscientious parents and teachers won’t sway them all. That can result in peer pressure to eat junk.

Still, apart from suggesting that even your own packed lunches are wasting parents’ time, keep up the good work!

Nothing shocks me when it comes to profits but then, does anyone honestly think that a brightly coloured packet clearly aimed at kids is going to be healthy?

I don’t, and besides, if the child has a healthy meal at home in the mornings and evenings, it doesn’t matter. It’s all part of striking a balance rather than being pedantically obsessed with healthy eating. Just make sure they have a banana or an apple and the sandwiches are made with wholemeal bread.

School Food Trust says:
2 September 2011

Hi Another David: sounds like you’re doing a fantastic job of getting lots of healthy foods and variety in your children’s packed lunches. But the evidence would suggest that you are (sadly) in the minority, which is why even though we do offer advice on healthy packed lunches, we still urge everyone to try a school lunch because they are typically more nutritious.

National school food standards, which starting coming into force in 2006, mean that school menus have been completely transformed in recent years. As well as tasty curries, pasta dishes and salad bars, you’ll still find healthier versions of old favourites like spag bol, the good old roast dinner and even fish and chips (just not every day!). If they’re meeting the national standards, schools won’t be offering sugary drinks, confectionary and crisps any more.

PS we based our estimates for packed lunches on making our recommended menus for the full 190-day school year – we tested them out and, because they involve a fair bit of prepping and baking etc, they do take a bit longer.


Ingestre Stables says:
2 September 2011

I have three girls who have just approached teenage-hood and each of them has different tastes and food likes. I have in the past given them rubbish food on the odd occasion when I was tired and fed up of yet another battle over healthy food but generally they take home-prepared cheese, philadelphia, ham or roast chicken rolls or wraps with slices of cucumber or lettuce. They also have some type of chocolate biscuit, quavers, hula hoops or skips, and a box filled with a combination of strawberries, apples, pear, grapes, melon, dragon fruit, pineapple and a capri sun drink.
I work in a primary school and see what some of the children bring for their lunches and even worse take on school trips and almost everything is shop bought, enormous and enough to put me off food for a very long time. The food I give my daughters may not be the best nutritionally but they eat it and aren’t starving and buying chippie on their 2 mile walk home.

Children's Food says:
2 September 2011

Thanks Which? for doing this research. We’ve just published a new report, Soft Drinks, Hard Sell, exposing the misleading marketing for drinks containing little or no fruit, but often lots of sugar. Check it out at http://www.sustainweb.org/news/aug11_soft_drinks_hard_sell/.

It’s a shame that the government are letting new academies and free schools off the hook when it comes to meeting the school food standards – we’ll be keeping an eye out to make sure they keep serving fresh, healthy and appetising meals, and don’t revert back to the bad old days!

Frank says:
3 September 2011

I lost 20lb. in wieght recently prior to a hip replacement operation. No fad diets, I simply eliminated refined sugar from my food intake. (I continued to eat fruit with their natural sugars). I said simply, in actual fact it proved to be quite difficult because of the number of foods that contain refined sugar. As a graduate in chemistry I have come to understand how alien refined sugar is to our human metabolism. In fact I regard it as a poison and will not go back to the way of eating that has kept me overweight for most of my life. A similar argument exists about SALT. What the vast majority of us have consumed over the years is artificial “table salt” or sodium chloride. I now insist on using sea salt which has a stronger flavour, therefore one can use less, and it also contains an array of beneficial and complementary minerals. I think that refined sugar and table salt should be heavily taxed to provide the government with income to pay for the medical conditions that excess use of these products cause to be presented at our hospitals. Strict limits of their use should also be imposed on food producers with prohibitive penalties for those found in breach of the regulations. The health of our nation would be the ultimate prize.

Sea salt is mainly sodium chloride and anyone eating a balanced diet will already consume enough of the other salts it contains. It might have a different texture and taste when sprinkled on food but it tastes the same when used as an ingredient of soups and sauces.

Decreasing sugar (whether refined or unrefined) helps cut down energy input, so a calorie controlled diet is what is needed for weight control. The term ‘poison’ has a specific meaning and I don’t think that sugar (sucrose) can be regarded as a poison.

Sweet and fatty foods are popular and many people eat far too much, helped by the fact that modern foods often require little or no preparation. Legislation and taxes would help but would not be very popular.

Salt is not the health risk most people think it is – unless they are liable to primary hypertension, in which case it’s a killer. The problem is that there’s no reliable test to tell you whether or not you’re one of among the susceptible one in five. Hence the government advice.

Most people are quite tolerant of both a large overdose and a lack of salt, in the short term. But habitual eating of a lot of salt is strongly associated with heart problems, especially in people who drink too little fluids (most of us in the West) or who have an acid-forming diet (again, most of us). Both of these habits make the body weaker and more susceptible to disease.

It’s also important to take account of salt-preserved foods, including salt fish, ham and bacon, which contains nitrite salts too.

I use sea salt for the flavour, but use as little salt as possible anyway, which also means avoiding nearly all pre-prepared meals. And in the UK, getting too little salt is almost impossible.

School Food Trust says:
5 September 2011

If you’re interested in this topic, you might also be interested in a survey we’ve just published on the power of price promotions for building take up of healthy school meals. Almost 6 out of 10 parents who didn’t already buy school meals for their children said they’d be prepared to try them this term if they were on offer at a reduced price, in the poll for us by the National Foundation for Educational Research. We think schools need support to run these sorts of offers.