Thoughts on banning packed lunches in England

I’ve just been having a chat with a work acquaintance at a training event and he told me something that made me angry and I wanted to share my views on.

Apparently, there’s a move in England to ban packed lunches/going home for lunch, and force every child to have a school lunch, in an effort to reduce childhood obesity and improve overall public health.

While I do think that these are worthy aims… I am completely appalled by this recommendation by a government-commissioned school food review.

I find it completely patronising to suggest that nobody out there is capable of feeding their own children. Apparently some ‘celebrity chef’ (not sure which one as it’s not in the article I read – so apologies if this isn’t accurate!) was quoted as saying even he couldn’t give his child a more nutritious lunch than a school meal – sorry, but what a load of bollocks (although given that most ‘celebrity chef’ recipes are way too high on salt, fat, butter etc… maybe they aren’t the best resource for people looking to eat healthily!).

Yes, there ARE children who aren’t getting the right diet, and we need to do lots more food education work to teach parents how to afford and make healthy food. I’d also support schools who ban crisps, fizzy drinks and other unhealthy foods at lunchtime. It does makes me so sad and angry that children are growing up fed on crisps and chocolate and chips and ready meals and that it’s setting them up for a lifetime of health problems.

But I don’t think the answer is to take away every parent’s right to feed their children. What’s next – all adults being force-fed in work canteens morning and night because we can’t be trusted to make the right choices and have never learned to do it ourselves anyway?

When I was in secondary school (and possibly younger) I made my own packed lunches, which were really my first solo forays into the kitchen. In fact it set me up for learning how to make packed lunches as an adult. To my mind, banning packed lunches at school sends the message that food prepared at home isn’t as good as that prepared commercially and that your own health is outside your control. People in general eat way too little home cooking as it is and I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage people to abdicate responsibility for their own families’ health and leave it to the schools to sort out.

In fact I’d argue that one of the roots of the obesity crisis (and other public health problems) is that society in general has lost the confidence, skills and knowledge to cook fresh, healthy food, so many people end up relying on processed alternatives, partly for convenience but often because they think they’re better than what they can make. In a world where too many people think making a lasagne from scratch is using a jar of red and a jar of white sauce, do we really want to encourage people to become even less responsible for their own nutrition?

In my mind, the key to improving public health is giving the tools and confidence to families so they can feed their children healthily, not actually banning them from even trying.

What do you think? Do you think banning packed lunches would help improve public health? Or do you agree that it’s a step too far?

I just wanted to say I’m certainly not having a go at anyone who makes use of school meals – but I think that it should be your choice, not dictated by the state. I also do agree with making sure that school meals are as healthy as possible for those who choose to use them.

BBC article about the recommendations here:


12 thoughts on “Thoughts on banning packed lunches in England

  1. Jen @ Blue Kitchen Bakes

    Very well written piece and sums up what I’ve been feeling. I don’t have children but if I did I would want to have the choice over what they got to eat for lunch. If the government wants to do something then they should devise a way of improving food education and teaching people the basic skills to prepare their own healthier meals.

    1. Jess Post author

      Thanks! I swithered whether to post this, as I don’t have kids either – but I figure I still have an opinion and wanted to share it 🙂 totally agree that food education (for kids and adults) needs to be drastically improved and needs to include so much more than it does.

  2. madaboutthedog

    Jess – you were brought up in home where nutritious relatively healthy meals with plenty veg and always fruit was the norm though. Not all families live like this plus we didn’t buy tons of crap for you to put in your lunchbox AND you had a healthy balanced evening meal. I don’t agree with banning lunch boxes but it is scary how many people – I would say the majority i have met – have a shocking attitude and very little knowledge about balanced healthy meals. Maybe targeting kids and looping out the parents may be an option with some merit?

  3. madaboutthedog

    Urg tried to reply don’t know what happened so sorry if this appears twice….you have to remember you were brought up in a house where we cooked every day and fresh fruit and veg were ways on the go. Many homes are not like that. Also we didn’t buy tons of crap to go in your lunchbox and you also ate a balanced nutritious meal every evening (usually with 3-4 portions of salad if memory serves…..). I don’t agree with banning lunch boxes but maybe targeting children and getting the into the habit of eating more healthily even if it means looping out the parents may be worth considering. Remember the parents passing fish suppers to kids so they wouldn’t have to eat Jamie Oliver’s meals a few years ago? I have to be honest and say the majority of people I know (with kids or not) have a shocking attitude to nutrition and also genuinely think it is not important. I find it difficult to understand but that is my experience.

    1. Jess Post author

      I totally agree that too many parents feed their kids junk and that that needs to change. I fully support banning these items in school (though believe this might have limited impact as the kids can just eat them out of school) and the drive to make school meals as healthy as can be for those do want to use them. I think there needs to be such an investment in better food education at school (and outside, for kids and adults) and that this needs encompass meal planning, budgeting, using ingredients creatively rather than just following recipes, and nutrition rather than just how to make biscuits (which is all I remember learning in school). But I still stand by my main point, which is that banning packed lunches is a bad idea which will only serve to further disempower people from caring for their own health and nutrition. It will likely have limited impact anyway as kids are still going to follow their parents’ habits and diets when they leave school if their only exposure to healthy eating is one meal a day during term times – they’ll still see eating junk as the normal way to eat at home and won’t have learned how to create healthy meals themselves.

  4. Lorna

    Well written, Jess. I also hate the idea of banning packed lunches and children eating a homogenised diet, but in this country as in the USA there is a chasm which needs filling in terms of education (in adults as much as children) about home cooking, including nutrition, budgeting and shopping as well as the cooking itself. Those of us who can put tasty, healthy meals on the table from scratch without breaking the bank are definitely in the minority; your comments on ‘red sauce and white sauce’ sum it up perfectly.

    1. Jess Post author

      I totally agree that there is a massive gap in food education and think that people need to be empowered to feed themselves adequately. It is sad that so many people are reliant on processed, ready-made foods rather than cooking themselves and I remember having a conversation about making proper ham stock with someone who then said “I didn’t actually realise a stock cube wasn’t proper stock” (as if it came like that somewhere in nature!).

  5. Maria d

    I totally agree, I have 2 little girls, the eldest is starting school in September so this is a very real issue for me. I am a responsible adult who is capable of making these decisions myself, I don’t need the government to tell me how to raise my children. They have reached the grand age of 4 & 2 and are thriving little girls without any input from the government! As it happens my little girl will be having school dinners at her request, but im lucky that her school only offers healthy home-cooked meals, and if i or she dont like the options on Specific day She can opt out for that day & take a packed lunch. It makes me so mad, this came out at the same time as they announced that they would fine any parent taking their child out of school to go on holiday, which again made me feel as if the government were telling me how to parent. It seems that the majority of parents are being punished for the minority out there. It’s not difficult to give children healthy food on a budget, it just takes a bit of thought and meal planning. I have had to do this when my husband was made redundant, I didn’t turn to ready meals and processed food for any of our meals. The way forward has to be through better education of parents and children in cooking healthy meals.

    1. Jess Post author

      Thanks for your comment. If I was a parent and this was implemented, I’d be concerned in case the school meals didn’t live up to my standards/weren’t actually that healthy that I’d have no control over whether my child ate then as I’d trust my own cooking more than the school’s! The system at your daughter’s school sounds perfect as it gives you and her control over what she gets fed and the choice each day of what to go for.

  6. Billie-jo

    I have seen for myself how some children are arriving at school with their lunch boxes holding totally inadequate amounts of nutritious and healthy food, some even none existent at all. . More often than not they contain white cheap processed bread aka pappy gunk, processed cheese, the almost inevitable bag of crisps (or two ), chocolate bars and biscuit along with a highly coloured and sugary drink.
    However on the other side I have seen some awful school diners. I do not class a sausage, a potato croquette and a teaspoon of peas followed by a sticky bun healthy.
    We had wonderful school meals, they served chicken portions (not fried or battered or processed ) fresh fish, real mashed potatoes, vegetables, there was always a salad choice, fruit, flap jacks etc.
    We were at a school leaving party the other night and the children were given the afore mentioned white bread with cheese spread, 2 jammy dodgers, party ring biscuits, crisps and greasy sausage roll!!! Granted this was not what the dinner ladies had provided but if schools, health & education chiefs and so on want to be taken seriously then surely good nutritional food must be brought in throughout the whole spectrum. They need to practice what they preach.
    Another point I find ironic is why do hospital A&E areas always have a vending machine full of chocolate, crisps and sugary drinks. You are up there all day/night and its perfectly normal to want a drink or a snack so in a sense you are a captive audience.
    People need to be taught good nutrition and although it may sadly be too late for some parents its not to late for our children. Home economics or whatever it is now called needs to be implemented through out every school and from the earliest age possible. You could argue that no matter what you teach them, if others still do the shopping/ meals then they will still not get the right healthy nutrition, but on the other hand there will come a time when they may well just remember what they have learnt and put it into practice.
    Our grand children 7 & 11 are very well educated regards food nutrition, they will gladly pick fruit over sweets most times, eat a very varied diet and as yet only really dislike peas and cream but sadly we also have another grand son who eats lots of pies, crisps, chips and cakes and has a strong dislike for all fruit & veg except peas, carrots & when the mood fits broccoli (takes after the other side of the family) !!!!

    1. Jess Post author

      I agree that both packed lunches and school dinners need to be improved for some many children. I went to school not too long ago and remember when I wa sin high school they brought in a new ‘healthy eating drive’ – instead of being allowed to order a portion of chips for lunch, this was (quite rightly) banned but then you were still allowed to order chips with a burger or hot dog and I fail to see why this was considered a healthier option!

      I agree re hospital food and it’s not just the vending machines – my sister spent a couple of weeks in hospital and we were all really appalled at the lack of nutritious food. She was given cheese and onion pasties and similar for lunch (when she was supposed to be on a low fat diet as was getting her gall bladder removed!). I don’t know how you’re expected to get better on this kind of food and luckily she hadn’t much appetite and we brought her in food everyday anyway, but not everyone has that.

      Another thing I’ve noticed is that even my gym has vending machines with crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks in it and you can’t get a healthy snack if you want one (I just take apples and such with me if I think I’ll be hungry anyway)!

      It’s a shame your other grandson has such a different attitude to food to the other grandchildren – my sister and I were always very good eaters and loved fruit and veg. We didn’t have a choice to be honest as we had to eat what we were given! I had friends growing up whose parents’ let them live off sweets, crisps and cereal because they wouldn’t eat anything else… I was far too scared of my mum to attempt that!

  7. Billie-jo

    I well remember Dad saying ‘if you don’t eat it for lunch you will have it cold for tea, you are not wasting good food after your mum has stood all day and made something’ and we did! Can you imagine the outcry if this happened now – child cruelty etc lol x Like most people we had to eat what was put in front of us with the odd exception – I never got liver as detested it (quite like it now) and would never eat sprouts (love these now) As for food if you are a patient in hospital, lets just say I have been a patient many times and after getting food poisoning once I never eat anything unless its brought in by family & friends. I spent 3 weeks on a ward a couple of years ago and the only think I would have is a glass of milk. Its shameful the state of hospital catering absolutely disgraceful. ( I could write a book on this subject) I couldn’t believe it when two dear ladies brought a trolley round from the WRVS and handed out sweets, crisps, cakes and biscuits to anyone who wanted anything even diabetics!


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