Leeds Beckett University study reveals parents’ choices for children’s packed lunches

Research conducted by academics at Leeds Beckett University has revealed parents’ motivations for sending their children to primary school with a packed lunch, as well as exploring what parents choose to include.

Initial findings from the study reveal that parents predominantly provide their children with packed lunches in order to ensure that their child has enough to eat, to track their food intake and to provide a healthy and high quality lunch.

The researchers at Leeds Beckett University – previously Leeds Metropolitan University – surveyed over 1,000 parents of primary school children in England to find out about the content of their child’s packed lunch.

In the survey, the researchers asked parents for their views on packed lunches, why they chose to send their children to school with a packed lunch or otherwise, what they chose to include in their child’s most recent packed lunch, and how they chose the foods they included.

Key findings from the survey:

88% of lunchboxes contained sandwiches.
The mean number of fillings in a sandwich was 2.2 and the most popular fillings (excluding margarine / butter) were ham (44%), cheese (26%) and cucumber (20%).
The majority of parents (92%) included a piece of fruit in their child’s lunch box, with grapes (39%) and apples (34%) being the most popular.
Nearly half of parents (47%) also reported including a vegetable / salad snack.
70% of parents included a yogurt / fromage frais item
Cheese snacks were also included in more than a third of lunches with Babybel (15%) and Cheestrings (12%) being the most popular.
More than half of parents reported that their child’s packed lunch contained a savoury snack, with potato crisps (19%) and potato starch snacks e.g. Hula Hoops (12%) accounting for most of these.
Six out of 10 parents included a confectionery / sweet / biscuit; a chocolate covered biscuit bar e.g. KitKat was the most popular (14%), followed by cereal bars (11%) and cake (10%).
The overwhelming majority of parents included a drink; the most common drink was tap water (38%), followed by diluted squash (27%).

Speaking about the study, lead researcher Dr Hannah Ensaff said: “Our initial results have given us a real insight into parents’ perspectives when it comes to providing a packed lunch for their children in primary school.

“Dietary habits and food preferences established during childhood are likely to continue into adulthood. Parents’ viewpoints are therefore critical; they directly influence food availability and diversity for children.

“Packed lunches can play an integral role in children’s diet, and this is particularly important, not only because a large proportion of children take a packed lunch to school, but also because of the Universal Infant Free School Meals initiative which came into effect in September. Whilst generalising the study’s findings to the wider population is limited, the study nevertheless provides valuable insights.”

The survey was split into four main parts: Packed Lunches; Your Child’s Most Recent Packed Lunch; Packed Lunches and You; and Packed Lunches and your Child’s School. Other questions related to the Universal Infant Free School Meals initiative and packed lunch policies at schools. The online survey was open during May and June 2014, and 1291 parents took part from across England.

Other findings from the study showed that:

On average, parents estimated spending £1.42 on a packed lunch for their child.
Of parents who sent their children to school with a packed lunch, most did so for 5 days a week, whilst almost a quarter did so for only 2, 3 or 4 days. Parents reported that a key factor for the variation was the school menu for that day.
More than 70% of parents were aware of a policy around packed lunches at their child’s school. Of these, 77% were in favour of the policy. Of those parents who were not aware of, or did not have a policy around packed lunches at their child’s school, only 47% were in favour of packed lunch policies.
83% of parents knew about the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) initiative (which came into effect in September). For parents with children affected by the UIFSM, 47% said that they intended to take up the offer fully, whilst an additional 23% said they would for some days of the week.
In selecting what to put into packed lunches, parents considered the freshness and taste of the food and drink, as well as whether their child liked the items. Parents felt that they understood about healthy eating and a balanced diet, and reported being happy with the content of the packed lunch that they provided.