A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children's packed lunches between 2006 and 2016

BMJ Open. 2020 Jan 13;10(1):e029688. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2019-029688.


Objective: Mandatory school meal standards were introduced in 2006 in England; however, no legislation exists for packed lunches. This study analyses provision of foods and nutrients in packed lunches in 2016 to highlight differences in diet and nutrient quality since 2006.

Design: Two cross-sectional surveys of children's packed lunches were conducted in 2006 and 2016. Data were analysed using multilevel regression models taking into account the clustering of children within primary schools.

Setting: Data were collected from 1148 children who attended 76 schools across England in 2006 and from 323 children attending 18 schools across England in 2016.

Participants: Children were included if they regularly ate a packed lunch prepared at home (approximately half of children take a packed lunch to school) and were aged 8-9 years (in year 4), for both surveys.

Outcome measures: Data collected in both years included provision of weight and type of food, nutrients and proportion of lunches meeting individual and combined school meal standards.

Results: Frequency of provision and portion size of some food types changed substantially between surveys. Frequency of provision of confectionery in lunches reduced by 9.9% (95% CI -20.0 to 0.2%), sweetened drinks reduced by 14.4% (95% CI -24.8 to -4.0%), and cakes and biscuits not containing chocolate increased by 9.6% (95% CI 3.0 to 16.3%). Vegetable provision in lunches remained low. Substantial changes were seen in the percentage of lunches meeting some nutrient standards: non-milk extrinsic sugars (19%, 95% CI 10 to 29%), vitamin A (-8%, 95% CI -12 to -4%), vitamin C (-35%, 95% CI -42 to -28%) and zinc (-8%, 95% CI -14 to -1%).

Conclusions: Packed lunches remain low quality with few meeting standards set for school meals. Provision of sugars has reduced due to reductions in provision and portion size of sugary drinks and packaged sweet foods; however, provision of some nutrients has worsened.

Keywords: children; diet behaviour; diet quality; food packaging; portion size; school food.

Publication types

  • Multicenter Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Diet / standards*
  • Energy Intake / physiology
  • England
  • Female
  • Food Preferences / physiology*
  • Food Services / standards*
  • Humans
  • Lunch*
  • Male
  • Nutrition Policy / trends*
  • Nutritive Value / physiology*
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Schools*