Don’t ban packed lunches, educate parents on healthy eating

People eat what their parents eat. First of all because children have to eat what they are given by their parents. But also because children pick up habits when they are young which can last a lifetime.

People eat what their parents eat.

First of all because children have to eat what they are given by their parents. But also because children pick up habits when they’re young which can last a lifetime.

The diets of British children will only improve significantly, then, when the diets of their parents improve.

Considering the so-called “obesity epidemic” afflicting British adults, it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that much of the grub parents are currently giving their children to take to school is below par.

It’s being reported today that just 1 per cent of packed lunches meet the nutritional standards that apply to school dinners.

School dinners have improved considerably since better nutritional standards were introduced on the back of a campaign by Jamie Oliver in 2005 against “Turkey twizzers” (i.e. cheap junk). But take up of school lunches is still only 43 per cent, meaning that in the main it’s parents, rather than schools, who determine whether or not kids get a nutritious lunch.

The growth of free schools and academies is also impacting upon the number of children eating healthy school lunches, as both are exempt from strict national nutritional guidelines.

Seeking to improve child nutrition, a new government commissioned report has called for a ban on packed lunches with the aim of improving take up of healthier school dinners.

This, so the reasoning goes, would ensure that children consume at least one nutritious meal a day, which is important not only for their physical well being but also in terms of academic performance – according to the authors of the School Food Plan over 90 per cent of teachers believe food has a direct effect on both academic achievement and behaviour.

Banning packed lunches seems a rather drastic response, however.

When I was at school there were times when my guardian (I didn’t live with my parents or relatives when I was 15/16) didn’t give me lunch money. Instead I relied upon a packed lunch made for me by my grandmother. Without that I would (and sometimes did) go hungry.

In other words, banning school lunches could only produce positive results if at the same time the government forced parents to give their children lunch money. How on earth would any government do that?

One solution would be to provide free school meals for all children. However this would inevitably entail quite large costs, and no government in these tightened financial times is likely going to argue for it.

Another option is a some kind of card which would entitle a child to a school dinner. At the end of each term the parents of the child would be billed for the costs associated with the child’s school meals, with the state meeting much of the cost for poorer parents. This would ensure that no child would ever need to go without lunch based on the forgetfulness/neglect/thoughtlessness of their parents.

This is all much further down the road, though, and until anything like this is introduced banning packed lunches could very well be counterproductive.

Much better instead to educate parents and children properly about food. This could have an impact way beyond schools.

I’m skeptical of the claim that poorer people are unhealthy because it’s cheaper to eat bad food. As someone who has in the past lived on the breadline, eaten very unhealthily, and learned how to cook and eat proper food later on, to me this piece of received wisdom is something of a myth.

It was a lack of time and knowledge that led me to make poor food choices far more than it was price. A four pack of chicken breasts and a bag of brown rice goes much further for your money than a bag of burgers and chips, but only if you know what to do with them.

Preparing decent food also takes time. One of the most noticeable things about living on a low income is just how much time is taken up by menial tasks – waiting for buses, visiting the bank/jobcentre, lugging the shopping home because you don’t have a car, dealing with landlords – leaving little time left over to spend in the kitchen. Shoving a ready meal in the microwave is almost always the easier option.

We can definitely do something about the first issue, though. By improving awareness among parents of what constitutes a healthy food choice we can go some way to improving the health of children.

Free parental cooking classes would be a far better idea than banning packed lunches, with one study suggesting that short classes can have significantly positive long-term impact on healthy eating. The school meal is, after all, only one meal of the day, and as any nutritionist will tell you it’s breakfast which really matters.

Improving access to school dinners (and ideally one day providing them for free) is an important front in the battle against poor dietary health.

It isn’t the only one, however. It’s also vital to give parents the skills to feed their children well at every meal, rather than simply preventing them from giving their children junk once they are inside the school gates.

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

13 Responses to “Don’t ban packed lunches, educate parents on healthy eating”

  1. sarah ismail

    If packed lunch was banned, school dinners would definitely have to be provided for free.

    There would be other problems to banning packed lunch though- on mainstream side, would meat be Halal or Kosher? Or would everyone eat veggie food- in itself not a balanced diet?

    If schools were to ban packed lunches, lunch staff would have to be prepared to spend extra time mashing/blending food for any severely disabled pupils to eat. If they were not prepared to make this reasonable adjustment, the school would have to be prepared to make exceptions to allow severely disabled children to bring packed lunches containing appropriately prepared food.

    Would this rule apply to special schools? For the reason given above, I don’t think it should.

  2. stillwaters

    Despite the improvements in school dinners in recent years I still don’t think they are generally that good. My daughter has a mix of school dinners and packed lunch and it is mixed but still seems to regularly include pizza, chips, wedges or other similar potato products and burgers, albeit venison. It seems a lot is still factory prepared food and it has to be this kind of food to ‘sell’ it to the children. Being forced to give up a half decent packed lunch would result in a deterioration in the quality of the food a lot of children would be eating.

  3. DGillon

    I know that the consultation on the report included at least one example of the kitchen staff at a special school saying there were instances when they weren’t able to source safe (i.e. bone free) meat cuts from the suppliers they were restricted too.

  4. DGillon

    “It was a lack of time and knowledge that led me to make poor food choices far more than it was price. A four pack of chicken breasts and a bag of brown rice goes much further for your money than a bag of burgers and chips, but only if you know what to do with them.”

    This can’t be a solution for everyone, there’s chicken in the fridge, rice in the cupboard, but often enough I can’t stand, or sit, for long enough to cook a meal due to my disability, which means either throwing something in the microwave, or some similar triumph of practicality over what’s ideal. And I’m very far from unique in this, it’s an issue for many of my disabled friends, but not one often acknowledged by those urging us to ‘eat better’

  5. LizzieMc

    My son is a non dairy vegetarian. Over the years School dinner Providers “Food With(out) Thought” have offered him:

    Fish ( its vegetarian you know )
    Pizza ( no veg but lots and lots of cheese) ( and sometimes with pepperoni which he had to peel off) with chips and no greens

    Macaraoni Cheese ( no veg but lots and lots of cheese) – at least 3 times a week – no greens

    Meat Lasagne – they told him it was vegetarian (- the only meat he has ever eaten) + chips – no greens

    Cheese pie ( cheese and potato mashed up together) – no greens

    Christmas Dinner – a slice of white plastic bread, a spoon of sweetcorn and some boiled carrots – (the roast potatoes already had meat gravy on them) – no greens

    Baked potato with baked beans ( full of sugar) and covered in Cheese – no greens – even when he has asked not to have cheese he is either told he “has” to have it or it comes “prepacked”

    So yes my packed lunches are much much much more nutritious than his school dinners


  6. Stephen Wigmore

    This is a really good article. Thoroughly sensible discussion and proposals.

  7. RogerMcC

    Parents who provide packed lunches generally do so because a couple of sandwiches and a kit-kat is much cheaper than a school lunch (average £1.93 for primary £2.03 for secondary back in 2011 – a tenner per week per child which is an impossible sum for many families).

    Ban them and poor kids will have no choice but to head for the local chippie – which would still be cheaper – or just go hungry.

  8. RogerMcC

    Halal or kosher tends to be a very local issue that is already dealt with.

    Vegetarianism/veganism and just plain food crankiness is however another issue altogether.

    My sister is a childminder and the number of children she deals with who have serious and potentially life threatening food allergies is surprisingly high and according to the literature rising fast.

    So how many parents with such children are willing to trust their children’s lives to underpaid and overworked staff who have to use the cheapest suppliers?

    An idiotic proposal from another two posh boys who only know the price of milk because they are chefs (one is an actual Dimbleby FFS).

  9. Helen Crittenden

    Completely agree with the main sentiments of this article and worth repeating: don’t ban packed lunches, but rather educate parents on healthy eating – because children eat what their parents eat. Within the budget of any normal school it cannot be expected that they are able to safely cater for a child with a life-threatening allergic reaction: the parents and later the child as they grow up will still need to take responsibility for their food intake. Parents (whether good or bad) should still have the right of choice as to whether they cater for their child’s main meal of the day to be at school or with the rest of the family at home after school. If some parents are unable to provide their children with a generally healthy diet then that is a separate matter to be dealt with in an appropriate manner – not lump all parents together as being assumed to be incapable of providing for their children’s diet.

  10. rachel

    my boys have packed lunch i do it every night sandwich ham or chicken with salad with fruit and bottle of water plus extra bottle for the day

  11. rachel

    i give my kids healthy pack up sandwich, fruit ,fruit yoghurt low fat ,bottled water. no crisp or choc . i don’t buy it . and they don’t have sweets either they have fruit

  12. SustainableFoodTrust

    Providing parents with the skills to produce healthy food at home is important, but more effort needs to be made to educate children about food in schools. This article reflects on school meal reforms, the importance of cookery lessons in the curriculum, and how children must be educated on where their food comes from

  13. celia

    I’m disabled and I can’t stand or sit to cook for long either. So I use a slow cooker and prepare what goes into it using a bowl and a knife sitting in my armchair in the living room. Then I leave it to cook for 4-6 hours or overnight depending on the recipe. Freeze in portions, then 5 minutes in the microwave when I want to eat it.

    It’s not rocket science and it’s not full of additives or the rest of the junk you get in ready meals either. But I do agree that few people seem to have the incentive to cook for themselves these days. But as I’m intolerant of sugar, fat and lactose I do and prefer to eat good honest simple foods regardless of my physical limitations.

Leave a Reply