School dinners or packed lunch

A key dilemma for many parents is whether to send their child to school with a packed lunch or to pay for a meal provided by the school. Lunch is an important meal for growing children. Children fail to learn and develop properly if they do not eat well during the day.

New standards for school meals

As part of the School Food Plan, a new set of mandatory standards for food served at school came into force in 2015. These standards are designed to help pupils develop healthy eating habits and to ensure they get the nutrition they need across the school day from breakfast to after school clubs.

What do the standards require food at school to provide?

The standards require vegetables and fruit, good quality meat, fish and dairy produce to be included in the meals provided at school. They restrict the number of times a week certain foods can be served. For example deep fried foods which are high in salt and fat cannot be served more than twice a week. School meals have also been designed to interesting and pleasant for children to eat.

What about drinks?

It is important for children to be drink regularly. Plain water has to be provided during the school day. Low fat milk and oat, soya and rice based drinks are allowed. Restrictions are placed on drinks with high sugar content including some fruit juices.

How to pack a nutritious lunch?

Recent research has highlighted that few packed lunches brought to school by children contain the right balance of food to meet the nutrition guidelines. For this reason guidance has also been set out for parents and carers.

What should a nutritious packed lunch look like?

A healthy packed lunch should contain a portion of fruit and a portion of vegetable or salad. Meat, fish or another source of protein such as hummus, peanut butter or falafel should be included. A starchy food such as bread, pasta or rice should be included each day together with a dairy food such as yoghurt or cheese.

Starchy foods are a good source of energy and should make up a third of the lunchbox. But don't let things get boring. Instead of sandwiches, give kids bagels, pitta bread, wraps and baguettes. Use brown, wholemeal or seeded bread, not white bread. Children often like eating with their fingers so chop up carrots, peppers for them to dip in hummus or a cheesy dip.

Sausage rolls and pies and sausages should only be included in a packed luck occasionally.

Snacks such as crisps, confectionery should not be included in packed lunches. Instead nuts and savoury crackers can be added. Cakes and biscuits can be part of a packed lunch as part of a balanced meal.

Most schools have a school lunch policy with helpful advice about eating during the school day.

The bottom line -packed lunch or school lunch?

If your child eats a school dinner you can be reassured the meal will be nutritious, varied and good for your growing child. The onus is on the school to make sure that it is.

If you send your child to school with a packed lunch the onus is on you to make sure the food is nutritious and palatable. The evidence shows that not many packed lunches sent from home get close to the standards that are laid down by law. So it might be better to opt for a nutritionally balanced school meal unless you really have the resources to pack up a healthy lunch yourself.

For more details on food in schools.


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