Can you pack or pick a healthy school lunch?

Like many parents, I spent the last few weeks of the summer holidays trying to stretch out the days whilst dodging the inevitable back to school preparations. Ultimately, time caught up with us which meant that I no choice but to shop with my children en masse. Admittedly, we’d left it a bit late this year but we obviously had blocked any previous memory from our consciousness of back to school shopping hell. Because why else did we choose to shop at a time when the stores are full to brimming of other late starters? Oh, the joy of shopping alongside other panicking families, scrambling around in search of missing school uniform and stationary. There was nothing quite like shopping for the Holy Grail of school shoes, ones acceptable to parent, child and school, whilst in the surroundings of other stressed out families. I lost count of the number people we witnessed losing the plot after hearing the fateful words of ‘out of stock’ one too many times.


Ready or not, the new school year waited for no one despite many of us still trying to deal with one of our child’s most important pieces of kit. Of course, I am talking about sustenance and the annual guilt-laden dilemma of school lunches: to pack or pick? 

It’s hard to believe that the question of whether your child will pack their lunch or pick it from the school canteen was once a simple decision that nobody else ever questioned. However, the subject of school lunches has become increasingly controversial and politicised over the years. Now that the contents of your child’s school lunch are implicated in everything from childhood obesity rates to school performance, families are faced with an even more difficult choice. And if that wasn’t enough, the Great British Bake Off recently stuck in their oar when one the judges, Prue Leith, was quoted as calling for a ban on packed lunches in schools. Her claim that very few parents gave out healthy lunchboxes due to pressure from their children clearly touched a nerve.

Leith’s comments were swiftly derided by critics who felt she was ignoring food poverty. It is hardly surprising, as a recent food poverty study by the Food Foundation has shown that almost 4 million children live in households that cannot afford to buy sufficient healthy food to meet governmental nutrition guidelines, let alone, give out healthy lunchboxes. The study found that the main barrier to eating a healthy diet was lack of money rather than a lack of cooking skills or access to shops selling healthy food. Although you cannot solve food poverty in a school lunch, many would think that the children of these same families must qualify for free school meals. Certainly, the number of children entitled to free school meals has increased as the government’s Universal Credit system is being rolled out. However, the Institute of Fiscal Studies estimates that the change in eligibility criteria means that up to 160,000 less children will qualify for this benefit in the future.

To be fair to Leith, her brief comments were taken from a much longer interview publicising the return of the GBBO to our screens. But in a classic demonstration of ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’, the timing of the media splash was still genius. The school lunch debate was widely rehashed across the headlines just in time for most parents to question themselves once more before the school year began. It is no wonder that many families are still trying to figure out what the right thing to do is. Although all families do things differently, there will be no disagreement over the importance and benefits of having well-nourished children. Fundamentally, it is only the question of how you’re supposed to do it at school that is in dispute. Some schools have taken away the decision, entirely, and only allow school lunches to be served. But most families decide on whether to pack or pick based on the cost, convenience, the likelihood that their child will actually eat it and lastly, whether it is nutritious or not. In other words, not many parents have the luxury of prioritising nutrition when it comes to a healthy school lunch.

It may not be difficult to find good examples of schools in the UK and around the world where pupils bring in healthy packed lunches, where every last crumb is eaten. Or schools where children are provided with tasty, nutritious meals from the school canteen. But what if your child’s school isn’t one of them? To pack or pick is hardly an easy decision and it gets even trickier when children morph into teenagers.

If your child packs a lunch, how do you encourage them to prepare a healthy meal that will give them energy and fill them up? The last thing any parent wants to see is their child’s lunch returning home again, in tatters and partly eaten or finding out that their child has been supplementing their lunches with something they’ve bought or been given. It may be relatively straightforward for a school to enforce a healthy packed lunch policy in primary school when children are younger and less independent but once they hit secondary school, forget about it. But how can you, at least, up the chances that they will eat their lunch if their friends still bring in crisps and chocolate sarnies for elevenses? How can you make it easier for them to make a healthy lunch without missing the school bus?

Then again, it may be easier to bypass the packed lunch stress altogether by deciding that your child will pick their lunch from the school canteen. But how do you know with any certainty what they are actually dishing out? Many parents will believe that after that Jamie Oliver from the tele and the implementation of the government’s School Food Standards, school canteens are now only allowed to sell healthy choices. It may be true that the Standards have helped to improve school meals in terms of nutrition and quality, but how many parents are aware that they state that ‘Desserts, cakes and biscuits are allowed at lunchtime’? How many more of their children are?

Many school canteens offer a wide variety of puddings and your child’s school is probably one of them. As secondary schools normally have an extended ‘lunchtime’ to allow for the larger number of sitting pupils and staff, these sweet treats can be available to buy as early as mid-morning. Given the choice, what teenager is not going to enjoy a freshly baked fudgy wedge of cake or massive chocolate cookie if they’re on offer? It may be reassuring for some to know that since the large majority of school canteens now operate a cashless e-system, it is possible to see online what your child is buying. But surely, it would be far easier for families if school canteens did not have any unhealthy foods available to choose from. What parent wants to find out too late in the term that their child has developed a bad brownie habit?

With the new school year rumbling on, there is no consensus on whether packing or picking school lunches is healthier and like most things, it comes down to what works best for your family. I can at least offer some suggestions to help make the decision easier.

As you would expect, children are more likely to eat a healthy lunch if they like it, can choose it and it varies. However, this does not mean that they should be given free rein on their lunch’s contents and all families will have to agree to some basic lunch ground rules. As a reminder, a healthy lunch, whether it is packed or picked, should ideally include:

  • Starchy foods like bread, rice, potatoes or pasta
  • Protein foods like meat, fish, chicken, eggs, beans or nuts
  • A portion of dairy foods like cheese or yogurt
  • 2 portions of fruit, vegetables or salad
  • A drink such as milk or water

If your child packs lunchbox, it can help to:

  • give them options on what goes into it by shopping with them in store or online if you want to avoid any conflicts in the aisles
  • get them involved in preparing it, themselves. If they are capable of making it, why should you? By taking responsibility for making their lunch, they are more likely to get it right and eat it.
  • make sure there is sufficient time to prepare it, preferably the evening before. Although it can be difficult to convince a grumpy child to do this after dinner they are always happy to have saved time the next morning.
  • make sure there are sufficient enough ingredients to make the meals vary. Don’t let them get stuck in a lunchtime rut of sameness. Boredom = a sad, uneaten lunch and temptation to buy something else.
  • consider letting them buy lunch from the canteen one day a week, for a break
  • pack extra snacks such as fruit, a bread roll or a sandwich for when they stay late for clubs and sports

If your child picks their lunch, it can help to:

  • find out from their school exactly what is on offer. It’s not enough to be given an ancient copy of the school’s sample menu from the website. What are they actually serving now?
  • speak to the school if you are not happy about the menu. If you don’t ask or complain, nothing is going to change.
  • try to supplement it, if needed, by packing an extra piece of fruit, bread roll or low sugar yoghurt. It’s easier for your child to avoid buying mid-morning and lunchtime treats if they already have a packed snack on them.
  • show them that you can see what they purchase, online, if your school has this facility. Not many parents have the time, patience or are the least bit interested in becoming their child’s lunch spy. However, just showing your children that you could find out what they are buying if you wanted to can be enough of a deterrent.

Lastly, it can help to reassess now and then whether packing or picking lunch is still the best choice for your family. Is it affordable, sustaining and healthy? With the rising cost of healthy food, I fear that this decision is only going to become more challenging for parents. As the school year goes on, the subject of school lunches is likely to resurface again in the media although perhaps not from anyone in the GBBO. I have to hope that the fallout from Leith’s comments has at least highlighted the need to address the growing issue and prevalence of food poverty. Because for too many families, the choice to pack or pick a healthy school lunch is largely out of reach.

Now for a bit of sandwich inspiration to add some variety to your usual school lunches that can also be enjoyed at home, here are some new sandwich filling recipes.

Chicken pepper1

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