A portion in blame

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Next week is National School Meals Week. A cause for celebration or a reason not to be cheerful? The TES tests what's on the menu and (below) the effectiveness of packed lunch carriers

Children are notoriously contrary when it comes to food and there is little point in appealing to their better natures on the grounds of nutrition alone. So what are they packing away? Is it age-appropriate, is it healthy and, most importantly from their point of view, does it taste nice? Almost as important, from the parental point of view, how much does it cost?

Last month deep-freeze merchants, Iceland, launched Wacky Veg, a range of chocolate-flavoured carrots, cheesy cauliflowers and jazzy sprouts. Safeways, mean-while, are selling child-friendly fruit and vegetables, where you can pay 29p and get a choice of a row of cherry tomatoes; a piece of fruit; a baby cucumber; a packet of raisins or some mini-carrots, all individually vacuum-packed. Amazingly, stocks of both were depleted in my local stores.

The TES tested seven "typical" school lunches on a panel of six children and Dr Margaret Lawson of the Institute of Child Health. The panel's top choice will come as no surprise (the omnipresent McDonald's having got young people's tastebuds thoroughly trained from an early age). But there is some good news: a packed lunch or fare from a school canteen is still good value for money compared to a commercial restaurant. However, based on the standard recommendation that each meal should include a protein portion, one to two cereal or potato portions and one or two vegetable or fruit portions, with not too much sugar or salt, some of the meals we tested fell well short. In nearly all cases, it was the designer water which really pushed up the cost.

Packed lunch for 7-year-old *Ham sandwich on white bread (no butter) *rutini fruit pieces in fruit juice *Skips (prawn-flavoured corn snack) *Two mini-Penguins (chocolate biscuits) *Tap water in bottle Cost Pounds 1.10 One panellist said: "It's just what I like. I prefer Frutini because an apple hurts my teeth and lots of them are coming out just now." While another claimed "I don't eat fruit. I prefer salt and vinegar crisps."

Dr Lawson's judgment was: "Not too bad. Rather low in fibre and high in salt and sugar. Wholemeal bread in sandwich, using a tomato or other vegetable would be better. Canned fruit in fruit juice still sugary: either cut out one Penguin or use fresh fruit."

Cost *** Nutrition *** Flavour **** Cooked school meal for 7-year-old *Roast pork with gravy *Vegetarian option: fish Boomerangs (shapes coated in breadcrumbs) *Small crunchy roast potatoes *Sweetcorn *Choice of two crackers with grated cheese; jelly and a small biscuit; apple or orange Cost Pounds 1.10 This failed to impress the younger panellists who disliked the lumpy gravy: "It's so disgusting, you can't believe it. That meat is so old! How do they do that to the gravy?" Another complained that you only got two fish Boomerangs and that the sweetcorn came with burnt bits.

According to Dr Lawson it was "rather fatty, especially if the fish Boomerangs are fried. Cheese too fatty to have after such a fatty main course. Jelly and biscuit are sugar and not much else. Why not make fruit salad as a more appealing healthy dessert?" Cost*** Nutrition** Flavour * Vegetarian lunch for 12-year-old * Egg and cress sandwich * Skittles (sweets) * Bottle of still mineral water Cost Pounds 1.31 This combination provoked healthy condemnation. One panellist said: "The sandwiches are horrible. They are too floppy." While another went further: "It tasted like spew, so I got the Skittles to take the taste away."

Dr Lawson was not that much more complimentary: "Low in fibre, seems to be low in calories, unless sandwich unusually large. Wholemeal bread and salad would add nutrients. Sweets contribute little apart from energy. Low-sugar yoghurt, raisins, or fruit would be better."

Cost ** Nutrition ** Flavour: for sandwich 0for Skittles **** average ** Hot school meal for 12-year-old * Spaghetti bolognese * Tap water * Vegetarian option: vegetable stir-fry with rice Cost Pounds 1 A mixed reaction to this one: one panellist said: "It was ok, it filled you up." And another: "Stuff this I'm off for a burger."

Dr Lawson was more generous: "A good choice, containing protein, cereal, especially if the sauce contained vegetables. If made with whole-wheat pasta, so much the better. Almost any dessert could follow this. Protein would be increased if tofu or an egg were included."

Cost **** Nutrition *** Flavour *** Packed lunch for 14-year-old * Tuna and mayonnaise sandwich * Bio yoghurt (strawberry) * Packet of Quavers * Citrus-flavoured spring water Cost Pounds 2.50 Nothing much to frighten the horses here, though one tester found that "I still get hungry after school if I have a sandwich lunch". Not only that but "It's all very fiddly to eat when you want to go and play football."

Dr Lawson was more concerned that it's "low in fibre and quite high in fat and sugar. Use dark rye or wholemeal bread in sandwich, cut down on mayonnaise, and include salad in sandwich. Fibre intake would also be improved if a yoghurt with grains, like Mueller Break-fast Time, were used."

Cost ** Nutrition ** Flavour *** Cooked school meal for 14-year-old * Lancashire hotpot with sprouts and carrots * Fizzy mineral water Cost Pounds 1.30 This drew the highest compliment from the panel: "It's a real dinner and I always like real food." Although another felt "It's too much like what my mother makes." For Dr Lawson it represented "a well-balanced meal, with protein, carbohydrate, vitamins and fibre.

"An active 14-year-old would have to eat a very large portion to get enough energy, though, and I would recommend a dessert such as fruit and custard or a bread roll to accompany it. " Cost **** Nutrition **** Flavour **** Non-school dinner for 14-year-old * Big Mac extra value meal, comprising Big Mac double burger, with mayonnaise and vegetable garnish, large portion fries, large Coke * Packet of Rolos Cost Pounds 3.88 "Yum" said the panel. Dr Lawson was more circumspect: "High in sugar and salt, low in fibre. Easy on the mayonnaise! Better to have two separate burgers because more bread is eaten that way.

"Replace large fries with small fries and have low-sugar Coke. Take a piece of fruit to eat afterwards rather than Rolos. Even a muesli bar would be better. "

Cost * Nutrition * Flavour ****

Panel members: Jeremy Jones (7), Nicholas Demetriou (7), Robert Jones (12), Jack Powell (12), Thomas Jones (14) and Andrew Sinclair (14)

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