In the past decade, UK school lunch nutrition has been in the spotlight of the public eye. Notably, in 2015 British chef Jamie Oliver helped roll out new regulations to clamp down on fried and processed foods served in schools after discovering that they lacked nutritional value and contributed to the childhood obesity crisis.
In the UK alone, 21% of 10-11-year-olds are classified as obese, with a further 9.9% of children as young as reception age falling into the same category. The Government aims to halve the obesity crisis by 2030, and to help achieve this, school meals must not contain added sugar, crisps, or sweets. Schools are also limited to serving two portions of deep-fried, battered, or breaded food per week alongside other strict regulations.
Information has also been widely distributed to parents who may be sending their children to school with pre-packed lunches through national awareness campaigns such as Healthier Families, Eat Them to Defeat Them, and NHS Better Health. But even with these campaigns to improve school lunch nutrition, how do hot school meals and packed lunches measure up against each other?
Nutrition, Food Waste, and Sustainability
Whilst pre-packed provisions allow parents to better cater to their child’s individual food preferences; there are no systems to ensure that these lunches will be as healthy or nutritious as the hot meals provided by schools.
By law, schools and academies must ensure that their food offerings allow children to have a balanced diet, enabling them to get the correct nutrition to keep learning effectively during the day.
Hot school meals also cut down on packaging waste as they are often prepared in bulk and served on reusable plates. Additionally, the introduction of pre-ordering software, such as CRB Cunningham’s Fusion Online app, drastically reduces food waste as kitchen teams know what quantity of food to prepare in advance.
On the other hand, predicting your child’s food choices on any given day can be difficult to pre-prepare and package. Schools and eco-conscious parents are now making active efforts to reduce their plastic usage when putting together lunch boxes. It’s hoped that homemade lunches will gradually become more eco-friendly as consumer habits influence supermarkets to reduce their plastic use - but this rollout is not yet where it needs to be.
Protection for Free School Meal Eligible Pupils
Meals prepared by schools help to protect vulnerable FSM students from going hungry. As of January 2020, excluding year groups with universal eligibility, 1.4m children qualified for free school meals in England or 17.3% of the student population (this number is without the additional stress of the pandemic on UK families).
For some children, the hot and healthy meal provided at school is their only nutritional intake for the day, making hot lunches vital as a reliable source of energy, nutrition, and concentration for those who might otherwise go without if they were to bring packed lunches.
Finally, for many pupils, the prospect of bringing in a packed lunch is appealing as they do not have to wait in long queues to purchase their meal, but with pre-order technology now rolling out into schools - long queue times could become a thing of the past.
After placing an order in advance, food can be pre-prepared and sent to a collection point, meaning there is no need to wait for food to be served or for payments to occur. This meal ordering method reduces hassle, putting school meals on equal (and if not better) footing compared to the humble packed lunch.