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Friday's child

Victoria Neumark on attitudes to packed lunches

Each lunchtime a little group of friends sits down together. Neriman has a pink Barbie-doll lunchbox. Two Oreo cookies, a Munch Bunch yogurt, a very small apple, a packet of prawn cocktail crisps and a cheese sandwich. Jenny has a packet of Trebor mints, a tangerine (seedless), a Lion bar, a flip-top box of Pringles (sour cream and onion) and a hard-boiled egg (My Little Pony lunchbox, somewhat battered - it was her sister's). Becky has her own Pringles (original crinkle-cut), a jam sandwich and a tube of Refreshers in a small Tupperware box, with a pink lid. Her drink is pink, too -strawberry Ribena. And Mira has a Nutrigrain bar, a banana, a scraped carrot, some plain crisps and a wholemeal marmite sandwich in her brother's old Thomas the Tank Engine lunchbox. Her flask contains Buxton spring water. Her box is the only one that is blue.

A cheap guess would be that Mira tries to swap her wholesome repast for crumbs from the artificially-flavoured, highly- coloured array of her friends' goodies. That would only partly be right. Mira doesn't like banana, specially if it has got a bit squashed, so she tries to trade it in for some Refreshers. But otherwise, she is just as happy. She is not specially fond of Thomas the Tank Engine, either - she is 10 years old, for goodness' sake - but her mum says it's good not to waste, and Mira likes to fit in with her mum.

Actually, the friends all like the lunches their mums make. It's a good feeling trotting off with food all wrapped up. "Don't the Pringles look nice in their box?" says Jenny fondly, flipping the flip-top. "Pringles always look nice," Becky replies, flipping her own. Lunch is cosy fun-time for Year 5.

It's quite different with Becky's older sister, Hannah. She refuses, as a matter of principle, to let her mum make her lunch. An apple, a yogurt fruit corner and a ham sandwich (no butter) are tucked away inside her Morgan rucksack. She plans to feed herself, supplemented only by a Pepsi Max (no sugar) and a portion of Burger King special fries on the way home. Unlike her friend, Charmaine, who still carries around her mother's home-baked cheese scones wrapped in foil inside a snap-top container, Becky is using lunch to remind everyone how independent she is at just on 14.

Charlie, their older brother, has gone past that stage. He bungs four cheese sandwiches, a large bottle of Lilt, two oranges and a packet of double chocolate-chip muffins in a Tesco's carrier bag. The bag bursts on the way to football training, so he abandons the oranges by chucking them at his friends who have gone on ahead, eats two of the sandwiches and stuffs the rest in his pocket, sits on his pocket when he is changing back on the football field, discards the mangled sandwiches in the mud but eats the muffins, forgets about the Lilt and buys some Coke on the way home. There his mum points mutely at a Cornish pasty still in its packet on the table next to a flask of hot soup. "You forgot your lunch," she says. Charlie smiles. "Never mind," he says. "What's for dinner?"

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