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.