Debate: Are packed lunches or school dinners healthier for your child?

It’s a debate that has been raging for many years now but as the Sunday Times launches their Better School Meals campaign, Eco Eats thought it was time to fully assess the two main options: school dinners or packed lunches.

Still think that most school canteens serve up greasy burgers and those dreaded Turkey Twizzlers? Well, the reality is that hot meals often provide children with a  nutritional, hearty lunch. Yet what about packed lunches, which arguably give parents more control over what their child eats?

Either way, children should be encouraged to be more actively involved with their food, with the aim of building a generation of adults aware of the importance of sustainability and a balanced diet. Despite money-strapped times, this mission is not impossible.

Please join in our debate by voting on our poll at the bottom and sharing your views in the comment thread.

Packed lunches need not be a pricey or unhealthy option says Jess Denham


As food education is not compulsory in UK schools, trying to muster enthusiasm among children for learning about what they are eating can be tricky. Allowing them some responsibility for their own meals from a young age can help set a healthy precedent for later life.

From helping to pick out their favourite colourful vegetables from a buzzing local market or making their own sandwiches with shaped cutters, making up a packed lunch need not always be a chore rushed in the morning and crammed into a child’s backpack. Parents with vegetable allotments can encourage their children to join them and failing that, growing cress in egg cups is a timeless activity!

Healthy, yummy food can be created hassle-free from the simplest and cheapest ingredients

Take a look at these examples of lunchboxes sent in by Guardian readers and some affordable, low-effort recipes from the Children’s Food Trust below:

  • Meatballs and mixed salad in a wholemeal pitta, celery sticks, a pear, chocolate bran and fruit juice
  • Pasta salad with chicken and vegetables, cherry tomatoes, a banana, low-fat rice pudding and water
  • Tuna mayonnaise sandwich, cucumber chunks, carrot cake, grapes and milk
  • Cheddar and coleslaw in a wholemeal pitta, red pepper strips, a kiwi, fromage frais and fruit juice
  • Potato and egg salad, carrot sticks, seeded flapjack, two clementines and water

Teaching children to cook simple meals for themselves such as chicken noodle salad or marinaded pork and rice may help instil an interest in food that could be developed as they grow up. A restructured National Curriculum is set to introduce obligatory cookery classes for seven to 14 year-olds- preparing their packed lunch could offer them a reason to practice newly learnt skills. According to this article in The Telegraph, from 2014 children will receive nutrition lessons with the aim of building up a repertoire of 20 dishes by the end of secondary school.

Take back control over what your child eats

Unlike with school dinners which, as Jamie Oliver highlighted, can be dodgy despite government nutritional standards, parents and children have control over what they eat in packed lunch. In the wake of the horsemeat scandal it’s hardly surprising that more parents are wary about letting their children eat from the canteen. A balanced diet can be monitored effectively and many schools have systems in place to check that children are not merely eating crisps, sweets and fizzy drinks. The eatwell model below clearly displays the kind of foods that should be consumed:

Image: NHSImage: NHS

Other ways that schools could improve their packed lunch policies

  • Involving the whole school community of pupils, staff and parents to keep everybody engaged and enthusiastic about improving food standards
  • Any new policies should be launched at the start of a new term so that parents have time to prepare for change and discuss any concerns with teachers
  • Food safety and hygiene should be considered and discussed with parents, with cooler bags used if no fridge is available within the school
  • Encouraging children to try out the Healthier Lunches For Children lunch-o-matic memory master whereby they can log what they eat for lunch each day using their school’s code

Packed lunches can be just as, if not more. affordable and healthy than school dinners. Parents simply need to commit a little time to learning some basic nutritional pointers and involving their children in preparing what they eat.

Instilling children with an interest in sustainable, home-grown, healthy and delicious food is key to building a generation of adults passionate about eating well and making the best use of resources.

School meals have many benefits but they should be free argues Nicola Bartlett

Nicola Bartlett

No more the chocolate custard and tinned pears of my youth or the unidentified meat masquerading as turkey, these days school dinners can be more like gourmet meals.

As a packed lunch devotee for most of my primary school days and being a bit of a foodie or just greedy I often glanced with longing to the other end of the canteen where children were tucking in to hot meals.

But I had school dinners for a year when I was ten and discovered the grass wasn’t greener. Our meals arrived in large trays delivered by Haringey Council from a depot somewhere, no food was prepared onsite and lots of the meals were chock full of preservatives.

Fast forward a decade and the world of school dinners has drastically changed. Campaigning by parents and teachers was given a boost when a certain Mr Jamie Oliver got the issue on the agenda and went into schools to examine what children were actually eating. The turkey twizzlers, processed meat with over 20 per cent fat and more than 40 ingredients, became a symbol of the processed food that schools had been happily dishing out to children in a bid to save money.

Twizzled turkey and other gourmet delights. Image:

Twizzled turkey and other gourmet delights. Image:

In my local primary school the meals are varied and healthy with a vegetarian option, a fresh salad bar and a jacket potato option. Each day there is a wide selection. A sample Monday offers pupils mixed beans goulash served with steamed rice; roasted mixed vegetable in puff pastry shell; jacket potato with leek and mushroom sauce; white cabbage; peas and for pudding chocolate cake with chocolate sauce or fresh fruit salad.

The menu has been salivating just thinking about it. These are lunches to look forward to and tellingly lots of the staff eat there.

When Jamie’s school dinners came out one of the shocking things was how little money was being spent on the food—the government budget was just 37p a head in 2005.

The primary school has lunches for £2.10 a day which seems like excellent value for the food provided. But this is an age where many families are struggling and this adds up to a lot of money. However giving children a good meal in the middle of the day has so many benefits for their health generally but also their ability to learn effectively.

Filling and nutritious lunches have become for some pupils the only proper meal they get. Four out of five of teachers say they bring in breakfast for their pupils who have not eaten since lunch the previous day are a worrying sign of the problems families are facing.

But the scale of school lunches means that deals can be struck with providers to keep costs down. There are lot of moves to connect school food with local suppliers in arrangements which support the local economy and ensure fresh food for the children. Some schools are even growing some of their own food.

In Islington in North London the council have introduced  free school meals for all primary schools. This is consistently challenged by the opposition party (the Lib Dems) who argue that only those on lower incomes should be eligible. But the main reason is attempting to banish the stigma associated with claiming the free lunches as well as ensuring that all pupils have access to good quality food and in areas of universal free school meals pupils perform better.  It would be wonderful if all boroughs could adopt this.


One response to “Debate: Are packed lunches or school dinners healthier for your child?

  1. Pingback: Ethical spending on the rise despite the recession | Eco Eats·

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