What is the issue with packed lunches?

What is the issue with packed lunches?

There is no doubt that the UK has made commendable advances in improving the nutritional content and guaranteeing healthy school meals in some (but not all) primary and secondary schools 1. Jamie Oliver’s so-called ‘turkey twizzler revolution’ in 2005 raised public awareness of the poor nutritional state of UK school meals, and government action soon followed after immense pressure from the public health community, parents and school food campaigns such as ‘Feed Me Better’.

Yet, no such regulations exists to regulate the nutritional content of the packed lunches that almost 50% of children are sent to school with 1. In saying this, in 2008 Gordon Brown’s Labour government recommended that all schools implement a packed lunch policy – yet this was a voluntary pledge unlike the mandatory school meal regulations 2. A number of North West schools have shown their commitment to creating a healthy school environment, for example Canon Johnson C. of E Primary School in Tameside have put together a healthy packed lunch policy, created by the school council and head teacher. The policy adheres to the Governments School Food Guidelines and states parents should avoid all fizzy drinks, confectionary, crisps and meat filled pastry products.

However, not all schools have pledged such commitment and a recent cross-sectional study found that only 1.7% of packed lunches meet the recommended dietary guidelines, an increase of merely 0.5% in 10 years. Shockingly, 42% of packed lunches also contained sugary sweetened beverages and over half contained too many sweet treats, such as biscuits and chocolate bars 3.

There has been an element of role reversal between packed lunches and school meals, as packed lunches were often perceived to be the healthier option for many years, pre-the ‘turkey twizzler revolution’ 4. From a personal perspective and as a child who was always sent to school with healthy packed lunches, they were often regarded as ‘uncool’ by my peers (of whom always had school meals). I distinctly and foolishly remember throughout my childhood feeling embarrassed of my healthy packed lunch and envious of the potato smilies and turkey twizzlers often served up at in my primary school. Although now, I am incredibly grateful of my parent’s tireless efforts to ensure I was eating a healthy homemade lunch at school, in the face of daily tantrums on my part I’m sure.

In contrast, the School Food Trust reports that packed lunches now contain more saturated fat, sugar, salt and fewer fruits and vegetables than school meals 4 – with another study describing one packed lunch to contain “blackcurrant squash, a packet of hula hoops and a chocolate roll” 3. For a young girl aged 7-10, this ‘meal’ constitutes to approximately over half of her daily added sugar intake and a third of her saturated fat intake, whilst contributing little else nutritionally.

However, there are a wide range of unavoidable reasons and circumstances why parents send their children to school with packed lunches which don’t meet dietary recommendations. This could include the cost of nutrient dense foods, which may be inaccessible to lower income households 4, time, education and awareness, practical cooking skills and abilities and convenience 3.

Although, there has been research into the psychology of food which indicates that packed lunches represent much more than a simple meal 5. Packed lunches can often be viewed as the bridge between school and home, and something which parents often lovingly and carefully construct with the child’s favourite foods (and often, not the healthiest of choices) to comfort them during their day in school. Packed lunches can be a source of anxiety to many parents, especially to those in early years, and can be a way of placing themselves and their home with their child during their mealtimes5. Hence, this research could provide an even greater explanation as to why only 1 in 100 packed lunches meet nutritional recommendations in the UK – parents may not often be thinking of the nutritive value of their child’s packed lunch, but more the emotive and loving value.

These are among a number of issues which need considering, as we know healthy nutrition during school years is greatly linked to educational achievement, improved concentration and mood during classes 6. Hence, providing a nutritionally balanced packed lunch is essential in giving children the best chance in their academic years.



  1. Evans, C.E.L. et al. (2010). SMART lunch box intervention to improve the food and nutrient content of children’s packed lunches: UK wide cluster randomised controlled trial. British Medical Journal.64, pp.970-976.
  2. Cross-Government Obesity Unit, Department of Health and Department of Children, Schools and Families. (2008). Healthy weight, healthy lives: a cross-government strategy for England. London: Crown Copyright.
  3. Evans, C.E.L. and Cade, J.E. (2016). A cross sectional assessment of food- and nutrient-based standards applied to British schoolchildren’s packed lunches. Public Health Nutrition. V.20 (3), pp.565-570.
  4. School Food Trust. (2009). Primary School Food Survey: School lunches vs. packed lunches [online]. Available at: http://media.childrensfoodtrust.org.uk/2015/06/primary_school_lunches_v_packed_lunches_revised2012.pdf [Accessed 6th Feb 2017].
  5. Metacalfe, A. (2006). Changing Families, Changing Foods: children’s lunchbox practices [online]. Available at: https://www.sheffield.ac.uk/polopoly_fs/1.145078!/file/Childrens-Lunchbox-Practices.pdf [Accessed 6th Feb 2017].
  6. Behrman, J.R. (1996). The Impact of Health and Nutrition on Education. The World Bank Research on Obesity. V.11 (1), pp.23-27.






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