ENGLAND — Getting a child ready for school or camp is a task in and of itself. As most moms and dads know, preparing their daily lunch box is among the most important parts. But are meals these days more nutritious than in years past thanks to the recent war on sugar? Despite seeing a decline in junk foods in children’s lunches over the last ten years, a new study shows there’s still plenty of reason to be concerned.
This study, published by the online journal BMJ Open, does show that children are consuming less sugary products. Researchers warn, however, that there’s a lack of vitamins and minerals compared to over a decade ago.
For the study, the authors examined information on content and weight of items packed in the lunches of British school children. In 2006, data was collected from 1,148 children between the ages of 8 or 9, in 76 schools across England. In 2016, the same study was conducted with 323 students of the same age from 18 schools.
Not enough plant-based products in children’s lunches
Overall, non-milk extrinsic sugar levels in two-thirds of the packed lunches were still higher than recommended, but down to 24 grams from an average of 40 grams. They also found that ham was the most popular deli meat in lunches. Sandwiches with plant-based proteins, such as hummus, were rare. Less than 1% of the children consumed vegetable spreads or other healthier options. Only one in five children had any kind of salad or vegetables packed.
The authors also say there was no reduction in saturated fats for children. Many students had no dairy in their bags or boxes, and meals did not meet the standards for calcium intake.
An estimate of more than half of kids in British primary schools have a packed lunch. In response to this low number, researchers from University of Leeds are suggesting the food industry generate strategies for parents. That way, it’ll be easier for parents and caretakers to pack a nutritious lunch.
“This study underlines the role that parents, carers, the government and the food industry have in ensuring children eat more healthily. The research has found that on some fronts, packed lunches have improved but they are still dominated by sweet and savory snack food and sugary drinks,” says lead researcher in the study, Dr Charlotte Evans, in a university release. “The vast majority provide poor nutritional quality. Addressing that issue over the next ten years will require a concerted effort.”
More improvement needed
Dr. Evans adds that childhood obesity can decrease with the improvements of what is found in a child’s lunchbox. In 2015, figures showed that one-third of British 10-year-olds were obese.
Researchers state there is a “critical need” for fruits, vegetables and water intake to be provided for kids at school. Properly packed lunches is only one way to improve the need. Since 2006 in the UK, there has been more control over cooked lunches, such as: no sweets and every meal must include dairy, protein and vegetables.
While cooked lunch lunches are improving their methods, improving packed lunches needs to be brought up to speed.
“The research has found that on some fronts, packed lunches have improved,” Evans concludes. “But they are still dominated by sweet and savory snack food and sugary drinks. The vast majority provide poor nutritional quality. Addressing that issue over the next ten years will require a concerted effort.”