Improving school lunch nutrition

by Jennifer Bowden / 24 January, 2013
It’s easy to improve the nutritional content of children’s school lunches.
Improving school lunch nutrition

The start of the school year means the beginning of the inevitable daily slog – making packed lunches. We might console ourselves with the belief we’re doing our children a favour by providing a lunch that’s more nutritious than those ghastly canteen meals uncovered in British and American schools by English chef Jamie Oliver. Unfortunately, a veritable smorgasbord of research has found this is not the case; in fact, most home-packed lunches are less nutritious than the school-canteen meals.

Indeed, the nutritional gap between school meals and home-packed lunches is widening in Britain. Since food-based standards for school meals were introduced in 2006, the nutrient content has improved, whereas packed lunches haven’t improved at all, according to a 2010 study in the British Journal of Nutrition. This led researchers to conclude “the nutritional quality of packed lunches is poor compared with school meals”.

Similar findings emerged from three separate studies, published in 2011 in Public Health Nutrition, that assessed the nutritional content of school meals and packed lunches among British students of primary, intermediate and secondary-school age. Home-packed lunches were nutritionally inferior, typically providing less protein, fewer vitamins and minerals and higher levels of fat, saturated fat and sodium than school meals.

The researchers concluded that efforts should be focused on improving the quality of children’s home-packed lunches.

Across the Tasman things aren’t much better. Australian researchers found the average home-prepared school lunch contained a sandwich, a piece of fruit and one and a half servings of extras that were low in nutritional value and/or high in added fat, salt or sugar. These school lunches were typically low in vegetables and other healthy snacks.

Likewise, a 2008 study, published in Nutrition and Dietetics, found New Zealand children’s food consumption at school could also be improved. Children consumed about a third of their daily nutrient intakes while at school. At interval, this largely came from potato crisps, snacks, fruit and biscuits; sandwiches and fruit were most popular at lunchtime.

It’s good news that sandwiches and fruit are popular, but the regular inclusion of processed high-fat or high-sugar snacks, such as potato crisps and cereal bars, reduced the overall nutritional quality of the lunches. Instead, it would be preferable if packed lunches included fruits, vegetables, low-fat meats and dairy products, wrote the University of Otago researchers.

British researchers used a basic set of criteria to analyse the nutritional suitability of packed lunches for growing children. Specifically, a packed lunch should include:

  • Starchy food: for example, bread, pasta or rice.

  • A protein source such as meat, fish or a vegetarian alternative. Ideally, red meat should be provided twice a week and fish once a week.

  • At least one serving of fruit.

  • At least one serving of vegetables or salad.

  • Dairy food: cheese, yoghurt, milk or a flavoured-milk drink with less than 5% sugar.

  • Fresh water.

Items that don’t make the healthy-lunch cut include sweets, chocolate biscuits and cereal bars; potato crisps and other high-salt or high-fat savoury snacks; drinks other than water, milk or juice.

Lunch contributes substantially to the energy and nutrient intake of children and teenagers. So, providing nutrient-dense, healthy foods in school lunches can substantially improve the overall nutritional quality of their diet.

Healthy lunch ideas

  • Using these guidelines, you can create school lunches even Jamie Oliver would admire.

  • Use different types of breads, rolls and wraps for variety, or replace them with a rice- or pasta-based salad occasionally.

  • Experiment with protein-based sandwich/wrap fillings: cooked chicken with pesto, tomatoes and lettuce; tuna and sweet-corn with low-fat mayonnaise; chicken, brie and cranberry sauce; salmon and low-fat cream cheese; ham, cheese and crushed pineapple; peanut butter and mashed banana.

  • Add more vegetables: inside the sandwich or wrap; as coleslaw in a tub; as finger food – for example, carrot and celery sticks or cherry tomatoes; or in a rice-or pasta-based salad (using last night’s leftovers).

Email:, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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