Yet again another government body brings out a report telling us that as parents we are just not trying hard enough. ‘Lunchboxes should contain salad and fruit, not just chocolate and crisps’ says the School Food Trust in England and Wales. Really? Wow. Am I glad the government funded that piece of advice. Now I know what I’ve been doing wrong all these years.
The Trust also came up with the worrying statistic that 40 per cent of school lunch boxes do not contain any fruit and veg, compared with about 10 per cent of school dinners. The conclusion – parents should consider switching to school meals.
Now, as someone who has had the misfortune, earlier this year, to actually be invited to taste a school meal, I have deep reservations about this. As part of a well meaning but possibly insane attempt by our school to demonstrate to us the nutritious options that are being provided to our children at apparently subsidised rates, we parents trooped into the school at lunchtime. Now, in no way I am blaming the school. Endless cuts to funding now mean that school meals are no longer prepared on the premises, and that while the cost to the parents have gone up, the range of options being provided has reduced.
If these were healthy options, this would not be an issue, but the meal we were presented with was a glistening, greasy, thick wedge of cheesy pizza that would probably have fared badly in a test taste with Asda’s budget range, served with chips, of course, and, not to forget the most nutritional aspect of the meal, the much lauded vegetable, frozen sweetcorn. Other options were oily salty soup with vegetables cut too thick, a dry white roll, some baked potatoes with hard orange cheese (these were probably the best of the bunch) and a few pieces of shrivelled fruit. Oh, and there was a pudding, some kind of steamed affair with custard that looked so much like my own school dinner options I began to wonder if it had been frozen since the 1970s, just waiting for me to reappear.
All of which led me to look, ashamedly for the first time, at the menu for other days of the week. Monday. Hot dog and fries (again). The vegetable appears to be baked beans. Tuesday. Chicken Korma (all well and good – but with broccoli?), Macaroni cheese – that magnificent concoction of carbs and fat. Tasty but not exactly healthy. The vegetable is sweetcorn again. Burger in a bun. I wonder what the fat content of the burger is, and is the bun wholegrain? The vegetable is spaghetti hoops?? or coleslaw. Friday breaded fish with chips and peas. Tasty but largely fried.
Should baked beans, spaghetti hoops and frozen sweetcorn really be classified as vegetables? And while coleslaw undoubtedly contains vegetables, they are after all smothered in mayonnaise, which hardly makes it a low fat option. I remember the overcooked boiled veg we were given at school, and I fail to see how things have moved on at all.
And there is more to providing school meals than just serving it up. Even if this food was in any way edible – due to cuts there is limited supervision in the dining room to encourage children to eat it. At home, every mealtime is an exercise in coercion. I never give up in my mission to make my children eat just a little veg with every meal. I do this by cutting up raw veg for pre dinner snacks, and at the table by persuasion, by bribery, and sometimes by authority (the ‘you will not leave the table until you have eaten everything on your plate’ approach, which frankly sometimes works). As a parent we require the endless patience to keep trying, to judge what technique might be effective when. It is an endless and frustrating task, and the most children I have ever had to do it with at one time is six. To expect one teacher supervising fifty plus children to persuade them to eat their greens is frankly unrealistic.
Far better to let their parents give them the food they know they will eat, than to waste thousands of pounds of taxpayers money each year on cheaply produced inedible food, most of which I watched being heaped onto the unappetising looking sludge bucket at the edge of the canteen. Does anyone measure the waste from school lunches? I bet they’d get an unpleasant surprise.
And in what way is all this more nutritious than the packed lunch my children took to school this morning? A thermos of home-made tomato soup (The soup was leftover from the weekend) Cost 30p. A sandwich made with the weekend’s leftover lamb (they usually have cheese or tuna mayo) – 50p. A piece of fruit – in this case a banana – 30p. Chopped up carrot and cucumber – 20p. A flapjack (home made – but I usually buy them) – 30p. The total cost of this packed lunch was £1.60. My husband put it together this morning before he went to work, and it took him about ten minutes. It contains protein, complex carbohydrate and plenty of veg. It might be a little heavy on the sugar, but we can’t be perfect.
Conversely, if I had chosen a school lunch today, at the apparently subsidised rate of £1.70, my child would have had a hot dog roll, beans, and chips, because that’s today’s hot meal option. A healthy helping of fat, salt, and simple carbohydrates, and no veg in sight. (apparently there is a salad option but in true school military style – it only comes with the baked potato.)
Yes, you could argue that my child could ‘choose’ the baked potato instead of the hot dog. If you did, I would have to question whether you were living in the real world. As a health conscious adult we are daily faced with ‘choices’ between salad or chips, fruit or chocolate. Do we always choose the healthy option? I hardly think the diet industry would be so profitable if we did. What kind of willpower are we expecting from our children? Our bodies are programmed to go for the highest calorie option when starved. Do I sit down for our evening meal and say ‘now children, you have a choice tonight between broccoli or chips?’ No, their meal is served and they can eat it or be hungry. The only way to encourage children to make healthy choices is by not giving them a choice.
It seems to me that we have two options with school meals. Either spend more money on them and make them edible, or make cuts and serve only one or two of the cheapest options. Soup and baked potatoes would be more than adequate, and would have more nutritional value than the fat laden meals we as taxpayers are currently paying for. Kids would be healthier, and we’d all save ourselves a bit of cash which we could spend on something useful, say, for instance, teachers?
And we could make it easier for parents to choose healthy lunchbox options. We could regulate the sugar levels in those supermarket products that are aimed at lunchboxes, for example. We could give parents recipe cards with lunchbox ideas on them. We could legislate to make sugary foods more expensive, so that a chocolate bar or a biscuit is not cheaper than an apple, as often it is at the moment.
But since nobody will ever have the balls to do any of these things, I’ll stick to doing my best with packed lunches for my kids. Not that this is easy. Feeding a family healthy food on a budget is a challenge, especially when both parents are working. There are plenty of days I whip out the fish fingers, frozen chips and token peas because I haven’t got myself organised. But like most parents in this country I do my best with the sometimes limited range of options available to me. Like most parents in this country I invest a lot of time and effort in buying the right foods within my budget and encouraging my children to eat them. Like most parents in this country, I am trying my best. If only the same could be said of those in charge of school meal provision.