It seems to have come around quickly but as soon as the cold breeze hit me, I knew it was true. Summer has ended. But with a final panicked shopping trip to buy the last pieces of missing school kit, we were ready for the new term. That is, at least, in theory. Because it is not easy adjusting to the long-forgotten routine of simply trying to get your child to school in the morning. Especially after enjoying a summer of being able to do several hours of work first thing in the morning without interruption. During the sunny mornings, I could get through mountains of work in utter silence, bar the load purrs of an attention-seeking cat. My noisy teenage children used to only emerge from their lairs when hunger finally forced them out of bed. But now with the clattering of dishes and blast of BBC Breakfast everybody is up early and our kitchen has become a feeding hub of activity in the early hours. And where I once prepared the coffee peacefully and slowly started the day, the daily breakfast battles for space are in full swing.
Of course, the return to school also means a return to school lunches and the controversial topic of whether your child packs a sarnie or buys their lunch from their school canteen. Many families have strong views on whichever option is better for their children and cost can also play a factor. Others may not have a choice as their child’s school provides meals and does not allow packed lunches. But no matter how your child is catered for at lunchtime there is one thing that all families have in common. Everything changes when your child enters the beginning of the last two years of secondary school, aka Sixth Form in the UK. Once your child hits Sixth Form, parents will have to contend with a much bigger problem: the temptation of the lunchtime takeaway.
You would be right in thinking that children of all ages walk past far too many places selling fast food and confectionary on their way to school as they are conveniently located nearby. Therefore, parents know that the temptation to dip into the corner shop on the way to school or the risk of being sucked into the chippy by its salty aroma on the return home is already there. So how could this be any worse for your child when they are in Sixth Form?
The problem comes down to the combination of Sixth Formers being around fast food more often at a time when they have gained a semblance of adulthood. When children reach Sixth Form they suddenly have much more independence and with this comes the chance to exploit it. Chief among this is having a greater ability to leave the school grounds at lunchtime regardless of whether it is allowed. After spending years watching past Sixth Formers leave behind their school, classes, teachers and younger school uniform wearing pupils at lunchtime, who wouldn’t want to take advantage of this at least now and then? It is irresistible.
But leaving the school at lunchtime means making another trip past the same fast food outlets which are even more enticing when you are hungry, not to mention feeling slightly rebellious. Even if you do not intend on buying anything, simply being around it again is like walking through an all-sensory unrelenting fast food commercial. And the more you are exposed to this, the more difficult it can be to avoid giving in to a grumbling tummy craving for fast food. Before you know it, you begin to develop an unhealthy lunchtime habit.
Nonetheless, some parents may feel confident by the fact that their school is very strict and Sixth Formers cannot leave the grounds at lunchtime. Or perhaps you are reassured that your child’s school is in a rural area and out of reach of fast food outlets. However, distance is no longer a problem when your Sixth Former or their friends learn to drive. In the meantime, technology means a deep-fried desire is only a fast food app away.
Help for parents may be on the way though if a report by London’s Child Obesity Taskforce makes any traction. The Taskforce has called on the 8,563 takeaway restaurants in London to stop selling fast food to unaccompanied school children during lunch hours and in the two-hour period after school. The initiative is part of several recommendations considered by the Mayor of London to address the growing problem of overweight and obese children, particularly in poorer boroughs which have more takeaways per head than the national average.
So far the response from fast food outlets having been asked to ‘lead the way’ and refuse to sell to school children has been pretty muted. But as parents, is there anything you can do other than to just hope that your child doesn’t indulge too often?
The truth is that parents never really know what their teenager is up to unless they have somehow managed to track them. Ultimately, the older and more independent our children become, the less we can influence their choices, healthy or not. But at least whilst they‘re under your roof you can help them to eat well so that they are less hungry (and hopefully, less likely to give into fast food cravings). Encourage them to:
• Start the day right and not skip breakfast. Eating a healthy balanced breakfast including wholegrains, fruit and milk will ensure they have longer lasting energy and keep their hunger in check all morning.
• Pack some healthy snacks to have on hand for when hunger strikes. A piece of fruit or some vegetable sticks are obvious choices but a small spread of hummus or peanut butter on some crackers or rice cakes, a pot of low-fat/low-sugar yoghurt, some homemade popcorn, a bread roll or a small sandwich can also do the trick.
• Pack or buy a healthy lunch that they are actually going to eat. Negotiate with them but be realistic about what they will eat for lunch vs what you are prepared to buy for them. If they bring a packed lunch then they are more than capable or preparing it, themselves, and may be more likely to eat it.
• Pack extra snacks when they have to stay late at school. There is no way that they will last until dinner without having something to eat.
By no means are these suggestions perfect or the magic solution to stopping your Sixth Former indulge in a lunchtime takeaway because let’s face it, a determined teenager is a force to be reckoned with. However, at least encouraging healthy eating whilst they are still living at home will help these good habits stick and help to tip the scales against their unhealthy choices. Because unless regulation or restrictions are used to help families deter their children’s takeaway habit the high streets seem likely to remain a constant advertisement for indulgence and poor food choices.
But now for a simple recipe with a twist that will help to liven up any lunchbox, Savoury popcorn. It’s a healthy snack, easy to make, inexpensive and tastes far better than any packaged version so what are you waiting for?