Food and nutrient intakes of primary school children: a comparison of school meals and packed lunches

J Hum Nutr Diet. 2008 Oct;21(5):420-7. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-277X.2008.00885.x. Epub 2008 Jul 9.


Background: New school meal standards are currently being phased in by the government in an attempt to improve the nutritional composition of school food. However, no standards are applied to packed lunches. The present study aimed to compare the food and nutrient intakes of primary school children eating a school meal with those taking a packed lunch.

Methods: A sample of 120 children, aged 6-11 years, was observed once at a lunch time and all items consumed were recorded. Nutrient analysis was performed, and differences in nutrient intake between those children consuming packed lunches and school meals were determined.

Results: Mean energy and protein intakes were similar. The amount of energy provided by starchy carbohydrate was also similar but, compared with school meals, packed lunches provided twice as much energy from sugar (P < 0.001). School meals on average provided more energy from fat (P < 0.001), but intakes of saturated fat were lower in the school meals group (P = 0.021). Packed lunches provided more sodium (P < 0.001), calcium (P < 0.001) and iron (P = 0.016) than the school meals. Very few packed lunches contained vegetables, and fruit intake was particularly low for those having a school meal.

Conclusions: Children taking a packed lunch to school were consuming approximately double the amount of sugar and 50% more sodium and saturated fat in their midday meal compared with those having a school lunch. However packed lunches were providing children with more calcium, iron and fruit.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Ascorbic Acid / administration & dosage
  • Calcium, Dietary / administration & dosage
  • Child
  • Diet*
  • Dietary Carbohydrates / administration & dosage
  • Dietary Fats / administration & dosage
  • Dietary Proteins / administration & dosage
  • Energy Intake
  • Female
  • Food Services / standards*
  • Food*
  • Fruit
  • Humans
  • Iron, Dietary / administration & dosage
  • Male
  • Schools*
  • Sodium, Dietary / administration & dosage
  • Vegetables


  • Calcium, Dietary
  • Dietary Carbohydrates
  • Dietary Fats
  • Dietary Proteins
  • Iron, Dietary
  • Sodium, Dietary
  • Ascorbic Acid