Childhood obesity is becoming a hot topic in health circles, even to the point of being called an epidemic. Experts estimate that 20% of children between the ages of 6 and 17 are overweight, predisposing them to terrible diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Why have the world’s children ballooned over the past hundred years?

Ice Cream Adds Up! (thanks to flickr user lepiaf.geo)

Part of the problem is the popularity of fast food restaurants and cheap, fattening foods readily available at the grocery store. Policy makers have tried to tackle the problem at a variety of angles, promoting better package labeling and restriction or outlawing of the worst offending foods. Reformers have even targeted the meals provided by schools (efforts which have vastly improved the quality and nutrition of school meals), but the problem extends much deeper. Any nutritionist will tell you that healthy eating starts at home, and that is exactly where the problem now lies for the world’s children.

It turns out that the vast majority of parents are failing their kids, at least when packing them lunch. When Dr. Charlotte Evans and colleagues form the University of Leeds surveyed children’s packed lunches in the UK, they found that only 1 in 100 met the standards for nutritional value set by government agencies. In the UK, 50% of students pack their own lunches, and the findings of this study might explain part of why 1 in 6 of them are obese.

The research was done at the request of the UK’s Food Standards Agency, whose School Meals Review Panel (SMRP) has dictated what’s good and what’s not for schoolchildren since 2005. The government, at the urging of the panel, has restricted schools from serving foods high in salt, fat and sugar or made with poor-quality meat, and established mandatory food items such as protein-rich options, low-fat starch choices, dairy products, fruit and vegetables in the daily diet of students fed by the schools. But the board does not control the meals of the kids who bring their own, so the FSA wanted to know how the meals of these students measured up to the SMRP’s standards.

Researchers randomly selected primary schools throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and selected one class of 8 to 9 year olds from each school. All and all, almost 1,300 lunches were examined by a trained administrator, who went through the lunch and had the child go through a lunch box questionnaire. The administrator also weighed the lunch before and after to determine how much the kid ate.

What They Found

Most lunches contained sandwiches, sweet treats, snacks and sweetened drinks, and the kids ate 76% of what they were given. Few contained vegetables, milk or fruit juice. Of the 1294 lunches examined, only 14 (1.1%) met all of the standards for school meals and 66 (5.1%) met five or more. Fewer than half met the standards for energy, saturated fat, non-milk extrinsic sugars, non-starch polysaccharides, sodium, vitamin A, folate, iron or zinc. Interestingly, the researchers found that girls consumed more vegetables than boys.

The results were sobering.

As the authors write, “since 2004, there may have been some improvements in the nutritional profile of packed lunches due to changes in the composition of some manufactured foods; however, there have been no improvements in children’s packed lunches in terms of the types of food provided.”

While it might save some cash to pack lunches instead of paying for cafeteria food, you’re not doing your family any favors if you don’t pack a healthy meal. Studies have shown that kids that grow up with bad nutritional habits have a hard time breaking them later in life, so how you feed your kids has a dramatic impact throughout their years.


Kids Going to School…with lunches! from flickr user photomequickbooth

To learn more about how to pack the right kinds of meals, check out the School Food Trust’s website or ask your doctor what your child needs nutritionally. Here’s some examples of the good and the bad as described by a parent pamphlet explaining the UK’s 2007 update of the school lunch standards (view pamphlet here):

Good Choices to Eat:

  • Filled sandwiches, rolls, baguettes, bagels, pittas and wraps
  • Toasted sandwiches and paninis
  • Breakfast cereals with lower fat milk
  • Jacket potatoes, pasta and rice salads
  • Salads and vegetable sticks with dips
  • Yogurts/fromage frais
  • Fruit – all types including tinned (in juice) and dried
  • Combination of nuts, seeds and dried fruit (with no added salt, sugar or fat)

Good Choices to Drink:

  • Plain water (fresh tap water, still or sparkling bottled water)
  • Skimmed or semi-skimmed milk
  • Pure fruit or vegetable juices
  • Soya drinks enriched with calcium
  • Yogurt or milk with artificial sweeteners or less than 5% added sugar

Bad Choices to Eat:

  • Sweets/chewing gum (including sugar free)
  • Chocolate bars
  • Bars/biscuits containing or covered in chocolate
  • Processed fruit bars
  • Cereal bars
  • Chips and related products, like tortilla chips, potato sticks, puffs, crackers, corn chips, pretzels, breadsticks
  • Rice crackers, bombay mix, salted popcorn
  • Cakes, pastries, sweets

Bad Choices to Drink:

  • Flavored waters
  • Squash/cordials
  • Sweetened fizzy drinks like sodas and lemonade
  • Sports drinks
  • Diet drinks

Reference: Evans CE, Greenwood DC, Thomas JD, & Cade JE (2010). A cross-sectional survey of children’s packed lunches in the UK: food- and nutrient-based results. Journal of epidemiology and community health PMID: 20089755