Lunchboxes: a ticking timebomb?

Related tags Children Nutrition

Kids are being packed off to school with lunchboxes full of salty,
sugary and fatty foods - exactly the wrong kind of diet for primary
school children, according to a recent survey from the UK Food
Standards Agency. But striking the right balance between healthy
food and a lunch that kids wil want to eat is not easy.

British children are being sent off to school with lunchboxes full of all the wrong kinds of food, according to a new survey by the Food Standards Agency. Of particular concern is the high sugar content of much of the food - in some cases, twice the recommended daily amount.

The FSA​ survey, published to coincide with the back-to-school period, shows that as well as high levels of sugar, children are eating close to half their daily recommended salt intake and consuming high levels of saturated fats, highlighting a need to educate parents about what they should pack in their children's lunchboxes.

The survey looked at 556 home-packed lunches for children from 24 primary schools across the UK and revealed that up to 40 per cent of the saturated fat content in the lunchboxes came from butter and other fat spreads, up to 25 per cent from cheddar cheese, up to 19 per cent from crisps and up to 14 per cent from chocolate bars and biscuits.

Salt tended to come from foods such as white bread, ham and crisps and the higher levels of sugar came mainly from fizzy drinks, ready-to-drink juice drinks and chocolate-covered bars and biscuits.

To help parents reduce the saturated fat, salt and sugar in their children's packed lunches, the Agency has put together a month's worth of healthy balanced lunchbox menu suggestions as well as a selection of practical tips.

While many children would be horrified at the thought of eating school meals rather than a packed lunch from home, the survey showed that they would in fact be eating a far healthier diet if they visited the school canteen every day.

The majority of packed lunches would not meet the minimum standards set for primary school meals, the FSA said, with just 21 per cent meeting the standards of at least one portion of fruit and one portion of vegetables, one portion of milk or dairy item, one portion of meat, fish or other protein source and one portion of a starchy food, such as bread, pasta or rice.

The most popular food items found in the children's lunchboxes were a white bread sandwich, which was found in 87 per cent of packed lunches, followed by crisps (71 per cent) a biscuit or chocolate bar (60 per cent) and dairy items such as yoghurts or fromage frais (48 per cent). Fewer than half the packed lunches contained a portion of fruit.

Nutritional Guidelines for schools were introduced in 2001 by the Department for Education and Employment with the aim of improving children's diets. However, fewer than half of all children have a school lunch, the remainder bringing in lunches from home or buying their lunch outside school.

Robert Rees, chef and member of the FSA's board, said: "Parents face a daily challenge trying to get their children to eat healthy foods, and usually it's the children who call the shots when it comes to deciding what should go in their lunchboxes. Small changes to what children eat now can have a big impact on their diet and health in the future.

"Equipped with the material from this survey of real lunchboxes, the Agency has been able to provide practical and straightforward advice that will help parents increase the variety of foods they prepare and also take steps to reduce the amount of saturated fat, sugar and salt."

The survey, commissioned by the FSA from the Community Nutrition Group (part of the British Dietetics Association), seems to contradict the results of another survey by the Food Advertising Unit in the UK and published​ last month.

That survey showed that many parents were increasingly concerned about what their children ate, and that no amount of pestering from their kids would induce them to buy foods that they considered unhealthy.

The Food and Drink Federation, which represents British food producers, warned the government not to patronise parents, especially in the light of the earlier survey which showed that most are concerned about what their children eat.

"The FSA's suggested lunchbox menus recognise that confectionery, crisps, snacks and treats can be included in a 'healthy' lunchbox. We know parents understand that these foods can form part of an enjoyable healthy diet. It's important to make meals attractive and tasty for growing kids. Only last week a survey showed that two out of three children discard food from their lunch boxes. We will continue to work with the government and educators to provide information to parents about the choices available,"​ said the FDF's deputy director general, Martin Paterson.

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