Ban packed lunches? You must be joking!

A new report has urged headteachers to ban packed lunches and I’m somewhat enraged. Yes, how unlike me. Apparently the days of the turkey twizzler are well gone but some aspects of the report show it’s authors are living in cloud cuckoo land. Ban packed lunches whilst lowering the prices of school dinners? How terribly naive. Ban packed lunches and make a few quid more on selling school dinners more like. If you have a captive audience, you have them by the balls.

I have several actual issues with this though, mostly focused on the food rather than the ker-ching opportunities for schools or catering organisations. Firstly the school dinner portions at our kids primary school are far too small for our kids appetites. When the boy used to have a school dinner as he started reception, he came home afterwards and immediately had a second lunch. And there is no option for a second helping (not even employing Oliver Twist style please sir can I have some more tactics). Neither of our school aged kids are tubby but they are very active and burn a lot of energy. They walk or scoot to and from school, and trips in the car only tend to be taken when necessary. They often cover two or three miles a day easily.

Secondly, looking at the menu for the final 3 weeks of term, the kids can have jacket potato 10 out of the 15 days, with pizza & hotdogs filling up 2 of the remaining 5 days. That’s hardly inspiring and whilst the kind of healthy pack lunch wifey prepares probably costs as much as the £2 school dinner, at least we know where the meat has come from. Horsemeat was found in a few school dinners up in Lancashire, so the quality is not as great as the song and dance has suggested, even given the massive improvement in the quality of school dinners in the last few years.

Looking again at the menu, there is too much reliance on chicken and turkey, which can be raised very cheaply if you’re not adverse to a bit of animal cruelty. We only eat chicken when we’re happy of the ethical provenance of the fowl.

Rob Rees, chairman of the Children’s Food Trust, said his own children preferred school dinners, but added some parents feel they are expensive. He said, “They absolutely love it. It’s not the school meals of the past. It’s wonderful fish pies, bologneses, lasagnes.” No mention of the fish fingers, turkey burgers, sausage rolls or hotdogs there.

I’m in no way picking on our school, I think the menu they provide is in keeping with the vast majority of schools but our kids school does go the extra mile and put the menu on it’s website in PDF format so parents can download it. Looking at other local schools, they don’t do this, which is a shame and makes it harder to pull examples from other menus. This romanticised idea that kids are wolfing down kelp burgers whilst looking forward to steamed fish on a bed of flax seeds on a Friday is nonsense. Yes, the turkey twizzler has gone, no it’s not much better than I’d put in a packed lunch. You only have to look to the lovely Pippa’s packed lunches if you’re stuck for inspiration. It’s not difficult.

I think a much better approach is to police what goes into a packed lunch if the government are worried about the quality of food kids are having for lunch. It’s something our kids school does and it shouldn’t take too much common sense to implement something like this. We’re lucky in a way, at our kids school the packed lunch kids get to go in first, so they don’t spend half their lunch queuing for a school dinner. This means the boy wants to have a packed lunch and Fifi has just announced she wants the same. 

  • Thanks for the name check and I have to agree with you. School lunches, whilst in some places are better than they were in our day are still not perfect for children for a lot of the reasons you mention.

    The real issue here is about education. We need to all be taught again how to make healthy food, to understand how our bodies burn energy and also it needs to be understood that the key to everything is moderation.

    I don’t think this is a class issue, or a money issue it’s a educational issue.

  • I’m kind of both ways on this one; I think that limitations on the content of packed lunches would help – no chocolate, sweets, crap – some fruit and dairy in there maybe. School lunches should have to meet certain standards.

    We were talking about this at home – our eldest starts school in September and we’re very happy with the school lunches, but they cost £2.60 a day plus a contribution for snacks.

    They get a snack morning and afternoon mid-way through the session (because as you point out small kids BURN energy, and need the top up) and these snacks are cheese and crackers and a piece of fruit, or something they’ve made themselves in class together (examples; pizza muffins, cakes, decorated biscuits – always with fruit or cucumber/carrot sticks)

    The lunches are very high quality and made properly – really interesting things, sweet and sour, vegetarian options, risotto, things that I suspect a lot of children would never be given at home, with vegetables in everything – and two courses, again with varied but healthy options for puddings. Fridays are something with chips and then jelly and ice cream, but the chips are home made and the jelly has fruit in.

    I think if all schools had a; a decent menu, no crap or cheap options that schools have crammed in to save money and make profit and b; heavy subsidisation for the families who can’t afford them (£2.60 a day adds up quickly when you’re on a tight budget!) I think it would go a long way to helping kids to get a better diet than they might otherwise.

    You and I are careful to ensure our kids get a balanced diet, get a good mix, and get enough. A lot of people, even with the lower cost of packed lunch, don’t get that. A lot of children turn up with packed lunches full of processed food, sugar and beige foods with no nutritional value. I do think that there needs to be more in place for the kids who don’t get that balanced diet at home.

  • I used to hate school lunches and my boys seem to have inherited that from me. I would much rather send them off with a healthy packed lunch then leave them to the stuff which is served up there.