Packed lunches under the microscope

By | Health & Wellness
The study will gain an insight into parents’ knowledge of their children’s diets: Credit @rubbermaidproducts

Leeds Metropolitan University is set to examine the choices parents make when putting together their children’s packed lunches. The law states that all food in schools must meet nutritional standards so that children have healthy, balanced diets. This means there must be high-quality meat, poultry or oily fish, at least two portions of fruit and vegetables, bread, other cereals and potatoes made available. Will the same be evident in the packed lunch boxes provided by parents?

The project, led by Dr Hannah Ensaff from the University’s Faculty of Health & Social Sciences, will gain an insight into parents’ knowledge of their children’s diets through the development of an online questionnaire for parents of primary school children.

Dr Ensaff, a Research Fellow in childhood obesity and child nutrition, explained: “School packed lunches can play an important part in children’s nutrition, with children spending 190 days of the year at school. More significantly, they provide a link between the home and school and can represent a family’s provision of food. Packed lunches have also been identified as a factor in children’s diets, and have been highlighted with respect to the drive for school food reform.”

“Our study will provide insight into parents’ attitudes and knowledge towards their children’s diets. Such knowledge is critical and will reveal gaps in our understanding and allow us to identify areas for support. With the current high prevalence of childhood obesity and children’s diets being high in saturated fat and sugar, along with low fruit and vegetable consumption, this research has the potential to make a real impact.”

Analysing the results of the questionnaire will help researchers to understand parents’ choices when it comes to providing packed lunches for their children, and will contribute towards the development of a resource for parents in providing nutritious packed lunches. What should the perfect packed lunch look like?

According to the NHS, a perfect packed lunch consists of: starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes and pasta; a source of protein from meat, fish, eggs and beans; dairy items like cheese or yoghurt; vegetables or salad, and a portion of fruit.

Whilst starchy foods are a good source of energy and should make up a third of the lunchbox, also try to take into consideration how much energy your child will be using that day. If they have an after school club or P.E class then more carbohydrates can be allowed; whereas smaller portions could be given on days they are less active. The UK seems determined to keep up the sandwich tradition, but try to add variety to packed lunches by offering bagels, pitta bread, pasta or rice alternatives and substituting white carbohydrates for brown, wholemeal or seeded bread options.

Sugary snacks like chocolate bars and cakes should be replaced with healthier options like fresh fruit or dried fruit. To break up the monotony, parents can also vary the types of fruit given so their children can experience new things like kiwi or melon or other in-season fruits. The following are forms of sugar that are only needed in small amounts: sucrose, glucose, fructose, maltose, dextrose, fruit syrup and molasses. To ensure your child is consuming mainly natural sugars, look out for ‘no added sugar’ on the packaging or read the nutritional information panel and look under the section ‘Carbohydrates – of which Sugar’.

What would your ideal healthy packed lunch consist of?

The questionnaire is live and open to parents with children in primary school (both having school dinners and packed lunches).

It is available at:


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