Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The packed lunch debate: it's about food quality

Good Lord! Once again parents are being targeted for their negligence. This time its parents who send their children to school with packed lunches which, we’re being told-off, are nutritionally inadequate.

Nonsense. What’s inadequate here is the argument and the results? A complete lack of common sense from the Government agencies and reporters looking for headlines rather than delivering informed guidance.

If you’ve not caught up with the story, the facts are that research from The Leeds University Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics (funded by the Food Standards Agency) and hi-jacked by The School Food Trust (TSFT – setters of the exacting nutritional standards for cooked school dinners post the Jamie Oliver campaign against turkey Twizzlers in 2006) has been used to highlight that only 1% of packed lunches taken into school meet these standards.

Well rest easy. These standards assume that children would not by any other means obtain the ‘right’ nutritional benefits (ie breakfast and evening meal) from their daily food intake. Reading a little deeper into the research findings it’s clear that most packed lunches from homes that care about what their children eat (the majority, surely) are perfectly adequate. In some cases perhaps replacing a sugary drink with water or adding a piece of fresh fruit or including a few carrot sticks, would help. But that’s not the message from TSFT who think that all children should switch to school-cooked lunches. Nor is it what the headlines have been screaming at us today (eg from The Telegraph: 48% of packed lunches are un-healthy).

Undoubtedly the majority of school-cooked lunches are now well balanced – some are even delicious and excellent. But they’re still pricey. And undoubtedly there are kids sent to school with little more than packets of crisps, chocolate bars and sugary drinks. But by and large, parents do care about what their children eat are doing a great job producing packed lunches from their own kitchens.

If you’ve not already spotted it, our Anne Caborn has launched a home-made packed lunch revival  full of hints and tips to inspire us to make the most of what we have at home (see below) so you don’t have to rely on the food manufacturers flogging us lunchbox-sized over-sugared and fatted food replacements for our kids lunches.

Basically, children will eat what’s packed for them, including fresh and dried fruit, chopped vegetables, creatively up-cycled leftovers, and definitely home-made cakes and bars. They get hungry at school. It’s a well known fact. And as part of an overall balanced diet – which most parents strive towards – yes, we do care and can manage our families’ diets – a packed lunch can usually consist of simple things that don’t need a nutrition or culinary degree to produce. And kids will eat it.

Let’s shift this argument to what’s really going on here. 1) Having set-up standards for school-lunch nutritional standards, the Government wants all children to pay for a school-cooked lunch. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose, but not everyone can afford it. 2) Bereft of a ready market for turkey twizzlers, food manufacturers have switched attention to the lunchbox. This has all happened very quickly. All we have to do is not buy rubbish processed food – stuff like cheese strings and expensively packed sugary bars. Instead we need to make or prepare food that children will eat and enjoy from fresh and not necessarily expensive quality ingredients.

I make banana bread, cherry loaf, flapjacks and even, occasionally, rice-crispie mallow bars for sweet interest to follow a protein and salad seeded-wrap with pesto or mustard and mayo and chuck in at least two pieces of fresh fruit. Not a morsel wasted or the slightest worry she’s being nutritionally short-changed.

But you know what? According to TSFT even this kind of balanced food doesn’t meet their exacting standards for a ‘balanced’ meal and my carefully prepared home-made food does not fit their idea of a nutritionally adequate packed lunch. Why? Because there’s no dairy included. For heaven’s sake! She has milk on her cereal in the morning (and often when she get home from school) will occasionally make herself a milky drink and we use dairy products the rest of the time in a normal balanced manner. She gets enough dairy and way more than your average Japanese or Chinese student who, amazingly enough, have completely dairy-free diets!

By the way, we’re currently running a competition to win one of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s new Everyday cookbooks. You just need to let us know your healthy and cost-saving lunchbox tips, so follow the link below for your chance. Bring them on. ClareOB


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