Thinking outside the lunchbox

The Food Standards Agency should not be dispensing recipes for children's snacks and sandwiches.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

Are the contents of the humble lunchbox condemning children to a lifetime of obesity, diabetes and heart disease?

Listening to the latest pronouncements from the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), you could be forgiven for thinking so. According to a survey of 566 primary school lunchboxes, nine out of 10 contain foods with too much salt, sugar or fat. The most popular items were white bread sandwiches, crisps and chocolate-covered snacks. Less than half of children had a piece of fruit in their lunchboxes (1).

The FSA report follows close on the heels of a survey which found that primary schoolchildren are more likely to throw away the healthy food from their lunchboxes than throw away crisps or chocolate (2). The logical conclusion is that parents give children, especially younger children, food that they are confident will get eaten. And if that means providing them with crisps and chocolate rather than fruit, so be it.

It would be nice if children ate a balanced diet; the battle to make kids eat their greens is as much a fact of parenthood as changing nappies. But surely the important thing is that when children are away from the watchful eye of mum and dad, they eat enough to get them through the day?

The concern about children’s lunchboxes is driven by growing disquiet about increasing levels of obesity among the young. About one in 10 children is now regarded as obese. But this cannot be explained purely in terms of diet, never mind the contents of lunchboxes. Lack of exercise, a culture of snacking and the decline of the family meal are all factors that contribute to this problem. Blaming one aspect of a child’s eating habits is bizarre.

Moreover, many of the health claims made about salt, sugar and fat need to be treated with caution. The claims of a link between salt and high blood pressure, for example, have yet to be firmly concluded. If cutting salt intake does reduce blood pressure, the effect is likely to be small (3).

The same can be said for obesity itself. The grossly overweight do appear to be more likely to suffer health problems, quite apart from the teasing of their classmates. But extrapolating the problems of very fat children to those who are merely bigger-than-average is unwarranted.

Since when did kids who bring a packed lunch to school ever get fat? One thing that can be said about packed lunches is that there is only so much food you can get into the average lunchbox. A ham sandwich, a packet of crisps and a couple of chocolate biscuits are hardly obesity-inducing.

Yet that hasn’t stopped the FSA from giving us ‘practical advice’ about how to feed our children. The FSA have come up with a host of recipes to try out (4). As a formerly rake-thin child, I would certainly have turned my nose up at their suggestions of peanut-butter bagel, cherry tomatoes and mixed vegetable and rice salad. Another suggestion is to include a packet of mini-carrots. As a child I may have watched Bugs Bunny, but I didn’t want to eat like him.

Parents remember that when they were children, they were fussy about one kind of food or another. Generally, as we become adults, we are prepared to try a wider variety of foods. Hence, most parents can strike a sensible balance between giving children what they want and what they need, because they know their offspring will start to work it out for themselves in due course.

Such a pragmatic approach seems anathema to the FSA – which has decided that obesity, and children’s food in general, is a problem. The answer must be to tell the parents, too stupid to be trusted, exactly what they should feed their kids.

None of this advice will help one little bit. It attempts to solve a problem that largely exists in the FSA’s own mind, makes parents’ lives that little bit harder, and increases an unhealthy obsession with food.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Food scares

(1) Children’s lunchboxes ‘unhealthy’, BBC News, 1 September 2003

(2) Children throw away healthy lunch, BBC News, 26 August 2002

(3) The (Political) Science of Salt, by Gary Taubes, Science, August 1998
(4) A month of lunchboxes, UK Food Standards Agency

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Topics Politics


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