Packed lunch boxes - is yours healthy?

I wasn’t aiming to write about school lunches this week; it’s very poor timing, as children are about to begin their summer holidays. But an article in a Sunday newspaper this week claiming that ‘packed lunches make your child fat’ has provoked me into a lunchbox blog. ‘Many parents mistakenly presume their child is better off with a packed lunch’ the article continued, quoting the founders of the restaurant chain Leon.

The School Food Plan aims to increase the number of children eating good food in schools – a fantastic idea. The focus is boosting school dinner uptake from 50% to 70% within five years – but what about focusing on good food in lunchboxes at the same time?

Lunchboxes aren’t for every family, but I do believe my daughter is better off with a packed lunch. It’s healthy, fresh, I know what and how much she’s eating, and what’s more, she enjoys it.

Some schools have made great leaps forward with school dinners in true Jamie style. Ours isn’t quite there yet – yesterday’s menu for instance involved sausages and jam tart with custard. Don’t get me wrong, I think a healthy school dinner has lots going for it – it teaches children to eat together with knives and forks, encourages them to try new foods, and lessens the pressure of cooking a hot meal each night after school. I’m very pro-school dinners. When they’re healthy.

However, I do object to the dismissive attitude towards packed lunches and linking them directly to to the 30% of overweight and obese primary school children in the UK. This is not all the fault of the lunchbox. Our kids are at state school approximately 195 days a year. That leaves 170 days at home – more if the kids are at private school –  where parents are in control. It’s fantastic that the government is also endorsing cooking lessons in school for all under 14 year olds as of 2014, but let’s also get some help with the lunchbox if it’s needed.
Just as school dinners should be healthy, so too should packed lunches. If schools are allowing fizzy drinks, jam sandwiches, chocolate, biscuits, cakes and crisps in packed lunches, why don’t schools simply disallow this? This would then force parents to come up with healthier, more innovative ideas for packed lunches, which should then have a knock-on effect for weekend lunches and snacks. Yes, every parent runs out of lunchbox ideas after a while. But why stop at training schools and canteen staff on school dinners – we should surely also be supporting parents by running workshops showing healthy, easy, tasty lunchbox options. Or workshops for the kids themselves – there are enough Nutritional Therapists and chefs around to help – who care passionately about what British school children are eating and their health.

School dinners currently set parents back an average of about £2 a meal. Lunchboxes shouldn’t be any more expensive.

Take a packed lunch of:

  • Wholemeal pitta (12 pence), a few dollops of hummus in a pot (34 pence) a ‘proper’ adult live yogurt (44 pence), some cucumber chunks (13 pence) and a pot of strawberries (50 pence). Water or diluted juice to drink. That’s £1.53 total.


There are so many other, equally cheap, tasty and nourishing lunchbox ideas. Wraps, cheeses, dried fruit, flapjacks, rice or pasta salads – packed lunches needn’t be unhealthy, costly or boring. And it literally takes me three minutes in the morning to assemble the lunchbox. It’s not a big deal in terms of time. Read more about our views on lunch boxes here and here.

School dinners or packed lunches should both be an option. It doesn’t need to be one or another. But both do need to be healthy. Educate the cooks and schools by all means, but also let’s educate the lunchbox-making parents. But please don’t blame the packed lunch for the UK’s child obesity problem. Lunchboxes can be healthy, and often are.