/ 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!