Three quarters of parents say they feel guilty about the unhealthy food they put in their child’s school lunchbox but feel unable to switch to healthier alternatives, new research reveals.
While most parents are aware of what a healthy lunch should look like, British parents of children aged 5 to 13, have confessed to feeling under pressure to pack a lunchbox with food their child will actually eat, even if it means packing chocolate biscuits, crisps and sugary drinks.
Just weeks before children were due back at school in Septmber, the charity Action for Children quizzed 535 parents about the contents of their children’s packed lunches and found the average lunchbox for primary school children contains more than the recommended daily amount of sugar in just one meal and high levels of calories and salt.
The charity asked Mumsnet users for their lunchbox confessions and one parent admitted: “My children have WAY too much sugar in their lunchbox – I feel guilty about it all the time and vow to do better every term but with five kids all asking for different things it’s hard.”
Another parent said: “The one time I got my partner to pack lunchboxes he included three liqueur chocolates not realising they were alcoholic… I make all the packed lunches now.”
Another even confessed: “I lie to my daughter about what her lunchbox contains because school rules are so strict. Danish pastries become ‘apple whirls’ and flapjacks are ‘oat flips’”.
The revelations from the survey (conducted on 8-10 August) follow recent Government figures which show one third of children in England are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.
Emma Horne, Action for Children England south director, said: “It’s clear that childhood obesity is a problem we need to tackle, to save our children from suffering physical and mental health problems when they grow up. Getting eating habits right in these early years isn’t as daunting as it seems with the help of a few clear tips, and it can make a lifetime of difference.”
According to the poll, parents’ top four favourite lunchbox items are a ham sandwich, yogurt, a packet of crisps, and an apple. A carton of juice was the most popular drink and biscuits and chocolate bars were popular snacks.
Parents said they prioritised an empty lunchbox at the end of the day over a nutritious packed lunch - with parents most concerned about ensuring their child ate what they were given (38 per cent), rather than offering a nutritious meal (28 per cent.)
Don’t think a little chocolate bar won’t hurt
Nutritionist Mari Clark creates menus for Action for Children’s Eat Better, Start Better programme and has some advise for parents.
“If you're putting that little chocolate bar, or crisps, or that soft drink in the lunch box thinking a little bit won’t hurt, the truth is it does. Over time, all of these treats begin to add up and become a habit and, as we all know, habits are difficult to break.
“This isn’t helped by confusing packaging that has pictures full of fruit and happy children, when the products inside are packed with sugar and fat and salt.
“There is no need for any lunchbox to contain crisps, sweets, processed food, cereal bars, chocolates and things like that – if you have sandwich with some good quality protein, a portion of fruit, veg and dairy then that’s enough.”
To help parents pack a healthy lunchbox, Mari Clark advises:
• Don’t pack a sandwich every day. Try salads with pasta, potato, couscous with vegetables and some protein like chicken. Also consider boiled eggs or omelettes.
• Swap juice for water or milk. Or choose a low sugar drink or dilute fruit juice 50/50.
• Replace the crisps for chopped vegetables and a low-fat dip like hummus.
• Give your sandwiches or wraps different fillings; cooked chicken, turkey, egg, tuna, low fat cream cheese are all good options.
• When you’re shopping, choose the lower salt bread options stocked by most supermarkets.
• Use spreads and condiments sparingly and choose lower salt versions.
• Involve children in buying and preparing their food - they’ll be more likely to eat the food.
• Ask your child to try one new thing a week.
• Have baskets in the fridge filled with healthy snacks that the kids can choose for their lunchbox. It makes them feel more in control, but all the snacks are healthy.
For more inspiration about healthy lunchboxes visit: www.actionforchildren.org.uk/lunchbox.