You’ve only just accepted that your baby is actually going to primary school and now you have to make the next big decision – school dinners or packed lunch?
Unless you’re in the 1% of parents whose children eat anything put in front of them without the suspicion of a conspiracy theorist, this can be a tough call. If you’ve got a beige food believer, it’s natural to feel worried about how they’ll cope with having to expand their repertoire and whether they’ll get enough to eat.
You might also remember your own school years (sloppy semolina anyone?) and be worried about whether school dinners will provide your child with a healthy, balanced meal.
The fact is that both school dinners and packed lunches have their pros and cons. Here are the main things to consider.
Do you have to pay for school dinners?
In England, all children in reception, year 1 and year 2 in state-funded schools are eligible for free school meals. The same applies in Scotland to children in Primary 1, 2, and 3.
After that, it depends on whether you are on certain benefits and where you live. The Gov.uk website has more information about this.
What are the benefits of school dinners?
Well, firstly, school dinners are free for most infants in England and Scotland, saving your shopping bill. They also spare you the stress of having to prepare a packed lunch every day. And let’s face it, most parents barely have time to order the online shopping, nevermind whipping up a snazzy range of different lunch options every day.
School dinners offer your child a variety of different foods, which may encourage them to try new things, especially if their friends are happily eating it. This can help notoriously fussy eaters who refuse to try new things at home but who may be more willing at school.
The novelty of creating new menus for a packed lunch soon wears off and you may end up stuck in the same rut of having a limited repertoire of meals to pick. This can perpetuate the issue of having a child who only eats a small number of food types.
Some parents are worried that they’re unhealthy but actually research shows that children who have school dinners are more likely to have a healthy, balanced meal. A study found that the gap between school meals and packed lunches is getting wider – while packed lunches have remained of a similar quality for years, school dinners are getting healthier.
In 2006, only 1.1% of packed lunches met standards and in 2016 this had only increased to 1.6%. If you’re in that 1.6%, massive props to you but parenting is a juggle and often we simply don’t have the physical or mental capacity to prepare the perfect pack.
By contrast, school lunches have to meet national nutritional standards which include plenty of fruit and vegetables, unrefined starchy foods, milk and dairy, and sources of protein. So chances are that your child will get a healthy, rounded meal.
A hot meal at lunch time can help your child to keep going longer, which can be particularly helpful if they go to an afterschool club or activity.
5/ Less peer pressure
It’s inevitable that at some point your child will come home declaring that they MUST have that hideously overpriced and full of sugar dessert with a picture of a pony on it because their friend brings one in every day. Oh the joys of lunchbox politics.
With school dinners you won’t find yourself in the precarious position of having to negotiate the contents of the packed lunch.
What are the benefits of packed lunches?
1/ Dietary requirements
Packed lunches can be reassuring if your child has special dietary needs because you know exactly what they’ll be eating. Although this shouldn’t be a deal-breaker because these days most school catering services can cater for this.
You’ll probably feel better knowing exactly what your child is going to be eating so you don’t have to worry about them going hungry. Making sure your child has something that they like to eat can be reassuring for both you and them.
All that learning makes children super hangry and if a fussy eater turns their nose up at the school dinner, it will be a long day for them without anything substantial to eat.
Plus, you’re in control so as long as you put the effort in, you can be sure that they are getting a healthy, balanced and nutritious lunch.
Starting school can be daunting for children and navigating the school hall and the myriad of new lunch options may make them feel a little anxious. A packed lunch is a slice of home from home and that sense of familiarity can be comforting.
If you’re a parent who likes to plan, a packed lunch means that you can cook them a baked potato for dinner without them declaring that they had one for lunch already and couldn’t possibly look at another one again for at least three weeks.
So what the heck should I do?
Like most things in the heady world of parenting there’s no instruction manual, and no right and wrong answer. Do what’s right for your family.
But don’t stress it too much – nothing’s set in stone. You could always start with school dinners and if it’s not working out, switch to packed lunch. Or vice versa.
Whichever you decide, here are a few tips:
- Encourage your child to practice carrying a tray before they start school so this isn’t too daunting for them. You can make it into a game and see what they can balance on their tray as they walk across the room.
- Make sure they’re confident using a knife, fork and spoon.
- Many schools publish their lunch menus on their websites. Have a look at the menu with your child and let them know what the options will be for that day. By making the choice and knowing what to expect, they’ll feel more in control and confident.
- Make sure that your child can open everything that you put in their packed lunch,
- which may involve some practice over the summer. Yoghurt anyone?
- If you have any worries, speak to their teacher. They usually keep a close eye on reception children in the dinner hall and will be on hand to help them adjust to their new lunch venue. They can often reassure you that your child is eating just fine.
Our school dinners story
When our eldest daughter started school, we decided to go for school dinners. At her school there is a choice of meat option, veggie option, salad bar, jacket potato and sandwich. She had a cheese sandwich every day for weeks.
I wasn’t too concerned, I mean, there are worst things she could eat. But her teacher clocked that she was failing to sample the full culinary range and started to accompany her to the front of the line every day and encourage her to try something different. It wasn’t well received at first but she gently persisted and soon she was eating the different meals quite happily. And this from the lady who wouldn’t even look at a tomato.
Now she’s in year 1 and I wouldn’t exactly call her Heston Blumenthal but she’s certainly more open to trying new foods and eats things she’d never entertain before. I do think that school meals helped with this and I’m glad we stuck it out. Although I’m sure at some point she’ll start asking for packed lunches and that’s cool too.
By the way, school dinners or packed lunch – they still come out of school blimmin’ starving at the end of the day so make sure you have a snack ready or on your head be it.