Packed lunches worse for kids than school dinners, study says

14 January 2020, 00:21 | Updated: 14 January 2020, 06:24

Packed lunches are on average worse nutritionally than meals offered by schools, with the amount of essential nutrients in them falling between 2006 and 2016.

The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, included data from 2006 for 1,148 pupils at 76 schools in England.

Of these schools, 18 also took part in a 2016 comparison survey, which included a total of 323 pupils.

It found that while the overall amount of sugar in packed lunches had fallen, many contained foods still too high in sugar, salt or fat, while the levels of fruit and vegetables had barely changed.

Vitamin C content fell from 58mg to 30mg, and few children's lunches met the recommendations on fibre, vitamin A, iron or zinc.

Mandatory rules governing nutritional quality for school-served meals were introduced in 2006 in England.

These restrict sweets, savoury snacks and sugary drinks, while fruit, vegetables, starch, protein and dairy must be included at each meal.

However, no legislation exists for packed lunches and parents are free to choose what to include in them.

The study found that most sandwiches in both surveys were made with white bread and the most frequent filling was ham, which health experts say is linked to bowel cancer.

More than half of lunch boxes in both surveys contained crisps or other savoury snacks, while around one in three included a chocolate biscuit.

Around four in 10 lunchboxes also contained sugary squash or a carton of fruit drink in 2016, although this was lower than in 2006.

Three lunches looked at in the 2016 study contained just a sugary drink, a savoury snack and a chocolate bar.

The study, led by the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, concluded: "Packed lunches remain low quality with few meeting standards set for school meals.

"Although some children's packed lunches contain healthy foods, packed lunches continue to be dominated by sweet and savoury snack foods and sugary drinks.

"A minority of children eat vegetables or salad and this hasn't changed in the past 10 years."

Around half of children are thought to take a packed lunch to school, while the other half have school meals.