Tuesday, February 19, 2013

School dinners v packed lunches?

Does anyone remember what their school's dinners were like? I never had them at primary school, my mum always sent me with a packed lunch but I do remember every now and again persuading her to let me take some money on a Friday at high school for pizza and chips. What I do remember about school dinners, particularly at primary, is the smell - the yucky gravy and mash potato smell.

Working in a variety of schools, I have had a bit of experience with what school dinners are like now and, unfortunately, they vary depending on the area the school is in, the type of school (i.e. private or comprehensive) and the 'tyoe' of student that attends. Generally my experience has been bad, in terms of choice, nutritional value and indeed taste, but that's not to say that all school dinners are terrible.

If you are a member of Netmums or you read the papers, you may remember a story that came out a couple of weeks ago regarding school dinners. Basically, Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent, who are food advisers to the government, decided to make the bold statement that packed lunches should be banned and all children should eat a healthy school meal. I am not sure we would find a parent that doesn't want their child to eat 'well.' However, as we've seen from the likes of Jamie Oliver not all schools are providing healthy and well balanced meals for the students. Netmums posted the article on their Facebook page asking for parents' opinions on the topic and boy was there an outcry!

Schools getting involved in what children eat has been a very controversial and also contradictory topic for me for some time now. My step daughter is allowed to take a 'snack' at her primary school for morning break, which I believe a lot of schools now do. This snack is supposed to be nutritious and healthy. So, no crisps, chocolate, cake, biscuits, sweets etc. They can take fruit, veg sticks, cheese, yogurts, Mini Cheddars, Snak a Jaks etc. Now, don't get me wrong, I certainly do not advocate that children have chocolate or sweets for a mid morning snack, but what annoys me is that they are allowed 'Snak a Jaks,' which, depending on the flavour you choose have just as many, if not more, calories than Walkers French Fries or Quavers! So what are they actually tyring to advocate here? They also deign to dictate what a child at their school is allowed in their lunch box, if they choose to have packed lunches. This is extremely childish of me I know, but it really grates on me that they feel they have the right to tell us, as parents, what our children are allowed or not allowed to have for their lunch. Is that not the job of us, as their parents. Rightly or wrongly, aren't we allowed to decide for ourselves what our own children eat?

This is why I got so wound up by these so called advisors' statements. Now I say so-called, because as I dug a little further into this story I discovered that Dimbleby is apparently one of the owners of a chain of restaurants (that I'd never heard of) called Leon. If you take a look at their children's menu (which is available online here) you will see that it consists of only three options - chicken, fish fingers or meatballs. Granted each dish is served with brown rice (bleurggh) rather than chips but where are the options for vegetarians? I really don't think this man is in a position to 'advise' that parents' rights to choose what their children eat for lunch are taken away from them, when he co-owns a restaurant where vegetarian children aren't even catered for. And what about other healthy and nutritional options such as jacket potatoes, or pasta? Why must children have to eat brown rice if they are going out for a meal, that is, quite likely, supposed to be a treat? I very very rarely give my step daughter chicken nuggets or fish fingers, in fact I can't even remember the last time she had them, but really, is a one off as a treat so harmful?

Dimbleby and Vincent state that another reason packed lunches should be banned is also cost. They say that if all children had school dinners, this would save parents £2 billion a year that could be used to fund the school canteens. Hmmm. My step daughter's school meals are relatively cheap (£1.95 per day) compared to some schools but I still think that I can provide a healthy and nutritious but yet enjoyable and filling packed lunch for less than that each day. In fact I know I can, I do it for myself every day of the week!

It's interesting that they announce their recommendations amongst the horse meat scandal really as it's been brought into question what actually goes into school meals. I saw on the news that schools in Lancashire for example, have had their food tested and have had traces of horse meat found in the 'Shepherd's Pie.' This is hardly going to help bolster the adviser's recommendations. In fact, quite the opposite I would suspect.
Again, I suppose the way I feel about it is rather childish in a way. I am completely for healthy eating, especially in children. But that (should) starts at home. My step daughter eats what we do - i.e. fresh veg every day, a source of protein and some (small portion) carbohydrate. I know what goes into the food I cook. I ensure we get a variety of foods. Of course, we have treats, but we eat fresh food every day. I am completely against someone telling me what I can or cannot feed my child. I know there are parents out there that send their children to school with chocolate or crisps etc for their lunch and who don't get a healthy, well balanced meal for their lunch or indeed their dinner in the evening. But wouldn't money be better spent trying to educate these parents about the different types of food and how to put together well balanced meals? Schools are there to educate, not dictate and before they even begin to demand that all children eat school meals, they really need to look at school menus. In a school I've worked in in the past, chips were on the menu nearly every day. As were jacket potatoes and soup and a different dish each day, such as cottage pie. But leave teenagers to choose what they want for lunch and the majority go for chips. Who can confidently claim that chips five days a week is better for children than a packed lunch, made by parents, with a variety of different food sources? At the moment, I'd rather take my child out of school for lunch than let them eat the crap that the majority of schools are serving - I mean haven't these advisers seen the work Jamie Oliver did and what came out of his research into school dinners?!

Am I just on my high horse or do you believe we, as parents, have the right to decide what our children eat?

mummystartingout x


  1. When I was at primary school I used to love my school dinner so much, luckily we always had amazing home cooked food and yummy puddings! At high school I hardly ever ate at the school canteen, it was mostly fried or processed food of some kind.

    I think it's ridiculous trying to ban packed lunches, yes there are parents who might fill them with crap but also a lot who would prefer to keep an eye on what there kids are (or aren't) eating. You can also pack them with healthy, nutritious food that you know your children like and enjoy. What happens if they don't like whatever is on the school menu one day? Will they just go hungry?


    1. I never thought about what would happen if they didn't like the meal Sophie! That's a very good point! I agree, it's definitely a ridiculous idea! And that's the thing - it's mostly fried or processed food. And when there is an option for something healthy, kids (on the whole) will go for the less healthy option! xx