School lunchboxes dominated by snacks and sugary drinks

By June Shannon Nutrition News   |   14th Jan 2020

A new analysis of packed school lunches in England finds that just one in five children given vegetables in their lunches.

A new study on the quality of packed school lunches in England has found that while primary schoolchildren are getting less sugar in their lunches, they are also getting lower levels of vitamins and minerals than a decade ago.

Since 2006, steps have been taken to improve the nutritional quality of school meals in England, with schools obliged to stick to a set of standards on what can be included.

However, according to the authors of this study from the University of Leeds in the UK, no such rules exist for packed lunches and because more than half of children take one to school, these meals contribute significantly to a child’s diet.

Therefore, they set out to find out if the nutritional quality of children’s packed lunches had improved since 2006, when they were last analysed, and whether any changes were associated with the frequency or portion size of particular foods.

In 2016, the researchers returned to the primary schools in England that had taken part in the 2006 analysis and also included a random selection of 75 schools registered with the National Foundation of Educational Research.

Information on the content and weight of individual items in packed lunches was collected from 1,148 children aged 8-9 in 76 schools across England in 2006, and from 323 children of the same age in 18 schools in 2016.

" Vegetables remained the least common items, with only one in five children given these in their lunches."

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The most common examples of particular food categories in packed lunches were similar at both time points. Ham was still the most popular sandwich filling, for example; plant-based fillings, such as hummus or vegetable spreads, made up less than 1 per cent.

The results found that the bread type used in packed lunches had changed, with tortillas and wraps much more popular in 2016 (13% of children) than in 2006 (2%).

The packed lunches analysed in 2016 contained less sugar than in 2006: the inclusion of sweets and chocolate fell by 10 per cent from 62 per cent to 52 per cent, while that of sweetened drinks fell by 14.5 per cent, from 60 to 46 per cent.

However, the provision of cakes and biscuits that didn’t contain chocolate increased by nearly 10 per cent, and vegetables remained the least common items, with only one in five children given these in their lunches.

Portion sizes fell for some items, including confectionery (by 6 g), permitted cakes and biscuits (by 13 g), and cheese snacks (by 14 g), but they also fell for fruit (15 g less) and milk-based desserts (21 g less).

Overall the percentage of children’s packed lunches that met all eight food standards – five healthy food groups plus restrictions on three unhealthy food groups – rose only slightly, from 1.1 per cent to 1.6 per cent in 2016.

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

Researchers from the School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, UK

Essential nutrients also fell between 2006 and 2016: vitamin C content fell from 58 mg to 30 mg, and few children’s lunches met the recommendations on fibre, vitamin A, iron or zinc.

Saturated fats, non-milk sugars, and salt in foods also remained above recommended levels.

The researchers pointed out that this was an observational study which relied on just one day’s packed lunches at both time points, while potentially influential factors, such as deprivation levels, were not included.

However, they noted, “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.”

“Although not directly comparable, results from this 2016 survey confirm that children’s packed lunches have improved in terms of levels of sugar provided, but continue to contain levels of saturated fat, added sugars and sodium that exceed current standards and recommendations.”

“Improving the quality of children’s packed lunches is a complex issue which needs strong support from many stakeholders, including government, industry and schools, if [this is] to improve in the next 10 years,” they concluded.

" The development of school healthy eating policies is key to support and improve the nutritional quality of our children’s diets while at school.”

Sarah Noone, Registered Dietitian , Irish Heart Foundation

Commenting Sarah Noone, dietitian with the Irish Heart Foundation said, “We know school lunches have a significant contribution to the overall quality of our children’s diets and health. This research adds to the growing body of evidence which suggests packed lunches can be of poor nutritional quality. The development of school healthy eating policies is key to support and improve the nutritional quality of our children’s diets while at school.”

Sarah advised that when preparing school lunchboxes, it is important to try as far as possible to include all the main food groups.

“This would involve including fruit, vegetables such as salad on a sandwich, carrot or cucumber sticks or some cherry tomatoes; protein e.g. tuna, chicken, turkey, egg, or beans; dairy e.g. yogurt, cheese or a fortified alternative; and carbohydrates e.g. wholegrain bread, wholemeal pitta or even some oatcakes. Always remember to pack a bottle of water as well.”

Sarah said engaging children in preparing their own lunches was a great way to get them involved and children are much more likely to be interested in and eat their lunch, if they were involved in helping to make it themselves.

She added that investing in a lunch box with lots of little compartments to encourage a varied lunch with all the main food groups was a great way to help ensure a healthy school lunchbox.

BMJ Open A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016 doi 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029688

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child health childhood obesity dietitan heart health nutrition school lunches

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