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School lunches: what are we feeding our kids?

We all know that a school lunch packed with vitamin-rich superfoods would probably do our children the world of good. But in the real world, where children may be fussy eaters, parents are often busy and budgets may be under strain, how can we ensure that our packed lunches are doing good and - importantly - being eaten?

What's in a typical school meal?

When it comes to school meals, government guidelines that apply to many schools state that schools should provide a balanced offering for lunches. School meals should include plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables, unrefined starchy foods as well as meat, fish, eggs, beans, and some dairy foods, as well as including just a small amount of food high in fat, sugar and salt.

Put simply, schools are expected to limit the intake of certain foods and ensure a wide variety of healthy, fresh food options. Crucially, even government guidance allows for a little treat a few times a week, with fried and high-sugar foods not completely off the menu. 

While most schools are signed up to these healthy eating standards, it's important you check with your individual school, which may also be able to provide you with a menu to look at. But providing you are happy with the menu, school meals can pack a nutritional punch that is hard to beat. 

"School meals offer really great balance," agrees Joanne Roach, Director of The Foodies. "Healthy guidelines ensure that the children are offered a balanced, healthy diet with plenty of vegetables and fruit. Even if you have a fussy eater, it might be worth trying this option, as children are often influenced by what their peers eat."

Creating a filling packed lunch

Clearly, it's important that children's packed lunches are healthy and nutritious and fill children up sufficiently. In order to keep them going all afternoon, it's a good idea to include some slow-releasing high-fibre carbohydrates (for example, wholemeal bread or pasta).

"Growing children need the right nutrition to grow and learn at school. Iron-rich foods for example have a role in supporting thinking and memory to support learning. Slow releasing and high-fibre carbohydrate foods will help fill hungry bellies so they feel full and satisfied during the school day," explains Bahee Van de Bor, Paediatric Dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

Making sandwiches with wholemeal bread, or including some pasta salad made with wholemeal pasta, is an easy, quick way to include slow-release carbs in your child's school lunch. And do make sure you pack as much fresh fruit and veg in as possible - a new study shows a clear correlation between higher fruit and vegetable intake and better mental health and well-being among secondary school pupils.

Choosing healthy ingredients

A healthy packed lunch should contain a good balance of health-giving foods, fruits and vegetables. "A nutritious lunch box will have the right balance of high-fibre carbohydrate-rich foods (wholemeal bread, pasta, flatbreads) paired with iron-rich protein foods (meat, chicken, lentils), a side of calcium-rich foods (yoghurt) and at least one serving of fruit and vegetables for vitamins and minerals," explains Van de Bor.

This perfect packed lunch may seem a little overwhelming at first glance, but in food terms could be achieved with a tuna sandwich on brown bread, a yoghurt and banana, or wholemeal flatbread with cheese and tomato, with a low-sugar dairy-rich dessert on the side.

Whilst inspirational websites abound online, packed lunches don't have to be fancy or filled with hard-to-source and expensive grains to provide optimum nutrition for your child.

However, it is a good idea to expose your child regularly to new foods - even if you're not sure whether they will get eaten. "It's worth putting in something extra, like a carrot stick - even if your child doesn't eat it," says Roach. "Exposing them to new foods in this way will help them gain a good understanding of the types of foods available."

False friends

There's nothing worse than finding out the item you've packed lovingly for your child believing it to be healthy, is actually a sugar-rich snack masquerading as something beneficial. Sadly, the food industry often packages food to appeal to children, and uses keywords such as 'light' and 'contains real fruit' that can be misleading for consumers.

"There is a range of snacks that are marketed as being suitable for children because they're based on fruit. However, the fruit has been changed into a pulp or is blended. This releases sugars that behave like free sugars in the body," explains Van de Bor.

Some yoghurts made for children may also contain high levels of sugar, so check the label and try to choose yoghurts with less than 9% sugar in total.

What about a treat?

While it's important to keep an eye on the overall lunch box content, realistically most parents will want to slip in a little treat from time to time. Guidance to schools for school meals allows for the inclusion of fried and high-sugar foods in moderation, allowing for up to two servings of fried or breadcrumb coated food per week, as well as yoghurt or 'fruit-based desserts' containing at least 50% fruit. This is sensible guidance for packed lunch parents to adhere to as well.

"Moderation is key," agrees Kirsty Ketley, parenting expert. "Being too restrictive about what children eat can cause stress, or problems later in life. In addition, often friends will have a treat in their packed lunch, and your child may feel pressure to have something similar."

"School dinners will offer a pudding of some sort," says Roach. "Many dietitians would agree that it's OK to put something like this into your child's lunch box. It's all about variety, moderation and overall healthy balance."

Healthy balance/healthy attitude

When it comes to food, moderation and balance are key. It's important to provide a school lunch that is healthy and contains plenty of variety. However, it's also crucial not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. So while it may not be feasible to pack the ultimate health-giving school lunch each day, including fruit and vegetables, keeping things varied and trying to provide as good a balance as possible will go a long way to ensuring your child has all the nutritional input they need.

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