Kids Bag Lunches Lack Nutritional Punch

Worried about what your kids might be eating in school? Concerned about the nutritional value of school cafeteria food? As it turns out, you might not be doing any better by packing your kids lunches.

Survey research out of the UK’s University of Leeds, published in the online journal BMJ Open, says that less than 2 percent of all bagged lunches eaten by children attending British primary schools live up to proper nutritional standards. In Britain, it’s estimated that half of all primary school-aged children bring lunch to school.

The research was a comparison of bag lunches brought by kids to primary schools that were part of a sample in 2006 and again in 2016. The results shed light on the way in which the nutritional quality of the typical British lunch box meal has changed over a 10 year period.

In 2006, data was collected from 1,148 children in 76 schools. All were aged 8 or 9. In 2016, it was collected from 323 children across 18 schools.

While there has been a reduction in the amount of sugary foods included in those lunches across that span, sugar content is still well above recommended limits. In addition, a drop in essential vitamins and minerals has been noted. Researchers have suggested that the lack of fresh food is to blame.

According to the report, only one out of every five kids will find salad or any kind of vegetable in their lunch bag. For this reason, the researchers are suggesting that fresh vegetables be made available in schools at no cost to the kids.

They have also called out the food industry, saying those companies have a responsibility to make it easier for parents, guardians and caregivers to find healthier food options for kids.

The trends and changes noted by the researchers include:

  • Non-dairy extrinsic sugar levels have been reduced. Sugars from sources like table sugar, honey, glucose and added sugars in food and drinks come down from an average of 40g per bag lunch meal to 24g. A reduction of sugary drinks and candy, pastries and sweets seem to be the primary cause of this reduction.
  • Sugar levels still remain higher than recommended, on average. Two thirds of surveyed lunches remained above the recommended sugar threshold. Researchers expect to see further reductions, since Britain did what all governments do when people use a lot of something deemed “bad for them,” it levied a tax on sugar.
  • Inclusion of fruits and vegetables remained “stubbornly low,” especially vegetables.
  • Fewer bag lunches met the standards for vitamins A and C and zinc. The lack of salad, vegetables, fresh fruit and unprocessed meat or fish was given the blame for that deficiency in these key nutrients.
  • Most meals failed to meet the minimum requirement for calcium. A lack of dairy products in most meals was the cause of this.
  • Saturated fats as a percentage of total calories and nutrients didn’t decline over the decade.
  • Potato chips and other savory snacks continue to be a constant in bag lunches. Researchers say there has been considerable focus on reducing sugary, sweet snacks, but not so much for savory and salty snacks.
  • The most common sandwich filling is still ham. Plant-based sandwich offerings like hummus or veggie spreads are in only about 1% of all lunches.
  • One good piece of news is that candy and sweet treat serving sizes have dropped from 37g to 31g. This is attributed to the reduction in portion sizes by manufacturers, not to portion control by parents.

This research looked into whether lunches packed at home lived up to the nutrition standards required to be met by England’s school-made lunches.

Eight standards have been introduced in Britain for lunches made in school since 2006. Restrictions have been placed on sugary drinks, sweet treats and salty, savory snacks. Minimum serving sizes and other inclusion rules have been established for vegetables, protein and dairy as well.


However, as you might imagine, enforcement of these rules ends at the school cafeteria doors. These rules don’t apply to bag lunches.

The actual percentage of children’s bag lunches meeting all eight of the food standards established between 2006 and 2016 was tiny. In 2006, it was a miniscule 1.1%, by 2016, it had barely risen to 1.6%.

The research was led by Dr. Charlotte Evans, an expert in diet and health and Associate Professor of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds.

According to Dr. Evans “This study underlines the role that parents, carers, the Government and the food industry have in ensuring children eat more healthily.

“The research has found that on some fronts, packed lunches have improved but they are still dominated by sweet and savory snack food and sugary drinks. The vast majority provide poor nutritional quality. Addressing that issue over the next ten years will require a concerted effort.

“Improving what children eat at school will help reduce the risk of childhood obesity.

“In 2015, figures indicated that around one third of British 10-year-olds were obese — and that is linked to what they are eating.”

Can policy correct practice?

The scientists believe that measures to increase the consumption of water, fruits and vegetables among school-aged kids are “…critically needed.” One option they offer is to provide free salads and vegetables at primary schools for kids who bring their lunch.

They’ve also called on the food industry to create more lunchbox-friendly options. This, they believe, will help alleviate the time constraints the researchers think may be partly behind the less-than-optimal choices being made by parents and other responsible adults when it comes to kids lunches.

Some local schools and authorities are on the case, working to improve the nutritional quality of bag lunches. Leeds City Council is among those groups.

Councillor Fiona Venner, Executive Member for Children and Families, said: “Ensuring children and young people have healthy and nutritious meals is a key priority for Leeds City Council and our Health and Wellbeing service offers regular support, advice and training for schools on how they can promote healthier packed lunches.

“In 2016, the service successfully launched a packed lunch toolkit for schools in Leeds and West Yorkshire which helps them to develop their own nutritional guidance to support parents and carers make healthy choices for their children.

“The toolkit has been designed to assist the council’s plan to continue to reduce childhood obesity levels and offers a range of resources to support schools when engaging with pupils, parents and carers.”

Researchers, however, think this should be a national policy. They apparently don’t think the variations likely to occur across locally-controlled school boards and other groups is acceptable.

Dr Evans said: “Vegetables provide a wide range of nutrients essential for children’s growth and development including fibre, vitamin C and zinc.

“Children who take a packed lunch into school are at a greater risk of not getting sufficient nutrients compared to classmates who have a school dinner.

“Under supervision, even young children can prepare carrots, cucumbers and peppers to supplement their packed lunch. Vegetables and salad will remain fresh in an air-tight container for several days.”

Is a national, over-arching policy needed to improve the nutrition quality of children’s bag lunches? Is this issue better addressed at the local level? Is it just a matter of educating parents on how to make better food choices in this situation?

I guess it depends on who you ask. One thing is for sure, this is a problem that requires a solution. Children’s nutrition is the foundation for learning, development and even healthy attitudes, both now and later on.

Keep the faith and keep after it!

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Journal Reference – Charlotte Elizabeth Louise Evans, Kathryn Elizabeth Melia, Holly L Rippin, Neil Hancock, Janet Cade. A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016. BMJ Open

Read the full report here.

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