What's in your lunchbox?

Are kids eating enough vegetables in their packed lunches?
21 January 2020

Interview with 

Dr Charlotte Evans, University of Leeds




Fifteen years ago the chef Jamie Oliver made a stand to get schools to dish up healthier lunches for their children. His message did get through, and now school lunches do have to follow stringent nutritional guidelines. But the same obviously isn’t true for kids’ packed lunches, and a new study suggests that because they often don’t have enough vegetables, many children aren’t getting the nutrients they need as they grow. Phil Sansom spoke to researcher Charlotte Evans from the University of Leeds - and adults’ packed lunches are often as bad as kids’ ones...

Charlotte - We have surveyed children's packed lunches twice, once in 2006 and again in 2016, and what we found was that sugars had really come down quite a lot, and this was due to fewer children taking a chocolate bar or a sugary drink to school. And also the portion size of some sweet foods like yogurts and cakes had reduced. But one of the downsides is that there are still children, many children, who are not having any salad or vegetables in their packed lunch. So only one in five children had some vegetables.

Phil - How old were these children?

Charlotte - These children were aged eight to nine years old. So children who are younger have a free school meal under the universal free school meals scheme.

Phil - And how many kids do take a packed lunch versus a school meal?

Charlotte - About half of the children in this age group take a packed lunch and about half have a school meal.

Phil - Well, they're eight to nine years old. I'm 25 and I also bring in a packed lunch. Can you rate how mine compares? I've got here, this toasted sandwich in clingfilm and I've also brought in this Apple and a couple of chocolate biscuits.

Charlotte - Well that's not sounding too bad. Have you got any vegetables?

Phil - No, salami and cheese.

Charlotte - Well that's one improvement that you could make, but it's great that you've got fruit and you've got dairy and plenty of protein. You know it would be good to have some vegetables in there as well.

Phil - Is that the key message for the children's packed lunches then, that there needs to be more vegetables.

Charlotte - I think a lot of adults and parents think that children don't like vegetables, and vegetables aren't a children's food, but vegetables are so nutrient dense that it is really important that children eat vegetables every day.

Phil - There's been lots of campaigns for school lunches. Jamie Oliver comes to mind as the most famous campaigner. Why are you focusing on packed lunches instead? ‘Cause that seems like something that you can't really control.

Charlotte - Since the food standards came in for school meals in 2006, they have continued to improve whereas packed lunches haven't changed as much. So there's this gap in the quality between packed lunches and school meals. So we do encourage children to have a school meal. But of course there are lots of different reasons why children might choose not to. I don't want it to be all about parents and making parents feel guilty, because it is very difficult to pack foods like vegetables in a child's lunch when they don't want them or they don't want something different from what that friend eats.

So you know, having a universal packed lunch policy could be helpful, although it's still telling parents what to do. Another option would be to subsidise school meals, and we know that the cost is an issue for parents. So if school meals were cheaper than it is very likely that a higher proportion of children would have a school meal rather than a packed lunch.

Phil - Would you like to see something like free school lunches like you have for the younger ages? Up to age nine or ten?

Charlotte - I'd like to see subsidised school meals. To actually have free school meals for the whole of primary school would be quite expensive. And I'm not sure that the government would want to spend that much, but there are certainly some countries like Sweden and Finland, that have decided that it is worthwhile, so it is definitely something to consider, but if free school meals aren't possible, I would still say it's worth subsidising them to any extent just to reduce the price.

Phil - And what are the consequences for kids if they continue to not get enough vegetables, for example?

Charlotte - Well, children do need to have a nutritious diet, and we found that there were some nutrients such as vitamin A, zinc, and iron, that are found in fresh foods like vegetables and fruits, that were very low in packed lunches, and although we don't see out-and-out deficiency in children, if they do have a sub-optimal diet during childhood when they're growing and developing, then it could be possible that the risk of noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease are increased later in life.


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