Making a meal of lunch

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The school lunch debate is back. Packed lunches do our children more harm than good, some say. We should get rid of them and return to healthy school meals cooked on the premises. Well, I certainly applaud that.

When I became a headteacher, my school had a superb cook. There was little choice, but the children knew that what was on offer would be tasty and, if unfamiliar, worth trying. Packed lunches were unheard of and I was anxious that they should remain that way. And then, some years later, a forceful parent governor wanted them introduced. It was her right, she said, to give her child a packed lunch, and she didn't need a lecture on which food items would be nutritious. Sadly, the other governors felt obliged to back her.

The rot set in. Yes, she provided her child with a balanced packed lunch but many other parents didn't. Chocolate, crisps, cheesy things full of fat and a distinct lack of healthy sandwiches or fruit were the order of the day. All I could do was compromise: I had to allow packed lunches, but I regularly sent out newsletters extolling the virtues of our school meals. We held evening taster sessions and invited the parents to drop in and sample the food. Meanwhile, as in many other primary schools, child obesity began to rear its ugly head.

A while ago I listened to an intense radio debate on school meals. At the time, a secondary school was in trouble because the children weren't being allowed to eat what they liked. Parents weren't happy. "Our kids should have whatever they want," said one. "They don't like the stuff the school gives them and I don't see why they should eat it," said another. So what did they do about it? They stood outside the school in the mornings, took lunch orders from the children and then, at midday, went to the fast food shop, filled a pram with food and passed it through the fence.

I listened in horror. The disregard for the damage being done to their children was beyond belief. Even more frightening was the attitude of the chip shop owner. "I'm with the parents," he said, the sound of lunchtime frying in the background indicating the excellent business he was doing. "The kids should be able to eat what they want."

Why do so many parents abuse their children in this way? Ask them what a packed lunch should contain and you'll find few who can't tell you. And what some of the children eat in the evenings really worries me. Is it simply that parents have lost the ability or desire to cook for their children? Or is it the time factor? After all, it's so much easier to pop out for a kebab and chips.

Count the number of cookery programmes on television or the number of celebrity recipe books the public buys and you could be forgiven for thinking that cooking is a national pastime. And yet our children are becoming unhealthier by the day, and only the fact that primary children like running around and playing energetic games stops some of them from exploding.

All because children now have the "right" to eat whatever they like. And that's the problem, isn't it?

Mike Kent is a retired primary school headteacher in England. Email:

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