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What type of school lunch is nutritionally better? Canteen lunch, packed lunch or lunch bought outside the school gate?

School lunches contribute significantly to children’s food intake, so it’s key to ensure that the lunchtime meal is as healthy as possible. A large effort has been made to improve the diet of the nation’s school children with the introduction of The Scottish Nutrient Standards for School Lunches (SNSSL) which were adopted by secondary schools in 2006. I recently co-authored two papers that discussed research conducted by Dr Carina Norris on the nutrient intake of children who consumed either a canteen lunch in school, bought a lunch outside the school gates (‘street lunch’) or brought a packed lunch from home.

The research showed that around a third (32.8%) of pupils habitually had canteen lunches, 15.1% opted for packed lunches and 13.6% had a street lunch. Dr Norris’s research explored the nutrient intake of the three different lunch types and how they compared with the nutrient-based standards for school meals (the SNSSL). Pupils aged 11-14 years (n=332) from two secondary schools in Fife, Scotland were asked to record all the food and drink they consumed for five days (Monday to Friday). There are very few large-scale dietary surveys in the UK in this age group, so the data collected in this study should provide valuable insight to the nutrient intake of Scottish secondary school pupils.

The first published paper investigated the contribution of the lunchtime meal to nutrient intakes in school pupils. The research showed that canteen lunches provided the most nutritious lunch, followed by packed lunches, with street lunches providing the least nutritious. Canteen lunches came up best in terms of fat, saturated fat, non-milk extrinsic sugars, fibre, folate, calcium and iron and packed lunches appeared best for vitamin A and portions of fruit and vegetables. There’s room for improvement regarding the saturated fat, fibre and iron intakes provided by packed lunches as these nutrients were found to be more favourable in canteen and street lunches. In particular, this research found poor intakes of fibre, iron and fruit and vegetable intake both at lunch time (for all three lunch types) and over the whole day.

The second published paper from this research explored how the food and drink consumed at lunch on school days contributed to the overall daily nutrient intake. For example, did pupils who had an unhealthy lunch compensate by having healthy, nutritious food and drink the rest of the day? The research found that the street lunch was the least healthy lunch time option and the nutrition it provided was so poor that this could not be compensated for over the rest of the day.

This study found that the total daily energy intake on days where a canteen lunch was consumed was almost 300 calories less than on the days that a street lunch was consumed. Therefore opting for school meals could help address the current problem of childhood obesity.

It is concerning that not one of the street lunch days met the 5-a-day fruit and veg target and only 2.5% of canteen and 5.5% of packed lunch days met this target. Achieving 5-a-day fruit and vegetables intake provides many health benefits. A summary of some interesting findings from the published papers is provided below.

School lunch feedback:

• Overall daily nutrient intake of schoolchildren varied according to lunch type.

• The diet of school children in this study was found to be nutritionally poor, particularly with low intakes of fruit and vegetables, fibre and iron.

• Many children did not have the same lunch type every day. It was common for children to ‘flit’ from one lunch type to another.

• Canteen lunch days had the lowest total daily energy intake and the highest nutrient density compared with packed lunch days and street lunch days.

• This research suggests that it would be beneficial in terms of overall nutrient intake to encourage pupils to have canteen lunches.

“Must try harder” - especially to

increase fruit and vegetables, fibre, and iron intakes.


Norris C, Clapham M, Davidson I, Wyness L. School meal contribution to nutrient intake amongst 11-14 year old Scottish schoolchildren. EC Nutrition 2016

Norris C, Clapham M, Davidson I, Wyness L. Daily nutrient intake based on lunchtime meal type in a group of 11-14 year old Scottish schoolchildren. EC Nutrition 2016

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