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The Shocking Truth About School Lunches

Never pack these foods in your child’s lunch box

With the dramatic rise in the cost of living, many families are struggling to feed their children, resorting to highly processed packaged foods instead of nourishing whole foods.

Spiralling costs are also putting school catering firms under strain, with many slashing healthier food options from their menus in a bid to save pennies.

According to an analysis carried out by the Journal of Nutrients, UK school children consume the highest level of ultra-processed foods in Europe. After studying the school lunch contents of more than 3,300 primary and secondary school children, they discovered that 82% of calories in packed lunches and 63% of calories in school meals come from ultra-processed foods. [1]

The decline in healthy school lunches, both homemade packed lunches and school-provided meals, will impact school children around the country.

Learn which foods pose the most risk to your child’s health and how to make school lunches more nutritious.

What are ultra-processed foods?

Ultra-processed foods are convenient (and often cheap), non-perishable packaged foods and drinks that are highly refined and manufactured using preservatives, additives and colourings. These foods are far removed from their natural state, made more palatable by added fat, salt, sugar and artificial sweeteners.

They include:

  • Ready meals and fast food – pizza, chips, potato waffles
  • Mass produced bread – any bread made in a factory
  • Breakfast cereals – even those deemed organic, natural and healthy
  • Pastries, pies, cakes and biscuits
  • Processed meats – sausages, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, ham/ deli meats
  • Vegan meat substitutes
  • Snacks – cereal bars, crisps, pretzels,
  • Yoghurts – especially those marketed at children
  • Packaged soups and cake mixtures
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Condiments, sauces, dressings
  • Margarine and dairy-free spreads
  • Pre-packaged cheese slices
  • Ice cream and ice lollies

How ultra-processed foods affect health

Children who consume ultra-processed foods have an increased risk of being overweight or obese later in life. It also heightens their risk of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues and cancer in early adulthood.[2] [3] Highly processed foods are also linked poorer locomotor skills in children aged 3 to 5.[4]

Made primarily with damaged oils, sugar/ artificial sweeteners and chemically-derived additives and preservatives, these foods disrupt metabolism (the conversion of food to energy) and damage cells, preventing the body from functioning efficiently. The toxic effects of these highly processed foods accumulate and wreak havoc in the body, causing a range of health issues including:

  • Fatigue and brain fog
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Damaged blood vessels
  • High blood pressure
  • Behavioural problems
  • Poor focus and attention
  • Asthma and respiratory issues
  • Lowered immune function and recurrent infections
  • Irritable bowel syndrome and gut disorders
  • Skin problems – eczema, acne, dermatitis

Healthy lunchbox ideas

If your child has a packed lunch, here are some healthy lunchbox ideas and easy swaps to make lunch time more nutritious.

  • Vegetable or fruit kebabs on skewers or pick sticks
  • Rice paper rolls with rice noodles, shredded lettuce, thinly sliced cucumber/ carrot/ pepper/ avocado, strips of chicken/ beef (organic)
  • Hummus with vegetable sticks (cucumber, carrot, pepper) – Beetroot hummus, Turmeric hummus
  • Black sushi rolls – a great way to get vegetables into little ones
  • Pasta with homemade pesto or tomato sauce (sauté tomatoes, onion, garlic and season with herbs)
  • Boiled eggs are quick to make and provide a good source of protein
  • Wholemeal or spelt wraps – add some grated carrot and beetroot, cucumber, lettuce and tomatoes for extra nutrition
  • Spinach and quinoa balls – if nut-free, use oat or wholemeal flour instead of the ground almonds
  • Savoury muffins with added spinach, sweet potato, courgette, sweetcorn –kids love muffins and they are great way to hide vegetables


Swap thisFor this
White breadWholemeal bread or sour dough
White pastaWholemeal pasta or a gluten-free wholemeal rice pasta
CrispsKale chips or popcorn
Chocolate bars / biscuits / packaged cereal barsHomemade bliss balls, oat bars or raspberry flapjack bites (nuts can be replaced with pumpkin or sunflower seeds)
Processed meats (ham/chicken/salami)Leftover home-cooked meat
MargarineButter, avocado, hummus or a seed butter (sunflower or pumpkin)

Handy tricks

  • Use shape cutters for sandwiches and fruits/ vegetables – this is a fun way to encourage kids to try new foods. They love seeing their food shaped as hearts, stars or their favourite animal.
  • Invest in a stainless-steel bento-style lunch box – with sectioned compartments (around 4-5), you can add a variety of healthy foods without needing lots of separate plastic tubs. It’s easy to pack/wash and doesn’t leak.
  • Use some colourful, child-friendly pick sticks for fruit/vegetable kebabs and to hold wraps together.
  • Plan lunch boxes for the week to avoid stress and last-minute morning panic. It also allows you to buy all the ingredients you need ahead of time.
  • Use up leftovers – extra pasta/sauces/cooked meat can be used the following day in lunch boxes.

If you’re looking for inspiration in the kitchen or for healthy recipes you can make at home, take a look at CNM’s range of short courses.

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Blog/Article content reflects the author's research and diverse opinions, not necessarily CNM's views. Items may not be regularly updated, so represent the best available understanding at the time of publication.

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