Let them eat cake... should we stop worrying about child diets?

IT'S funny how times change, isn't it? When I was a youngster I used to cast envious glances towards my friends as they tucked into their packed lunches, while I queued up for the daily disappointment that was our school dinner.

Packed lunches were fun, they usually included a sandwich, an apple, a bag of crisps and a chocolate bar, whereas the mush on my plate was about as inspiring as double maths.

To this day I still wake up in a cold sweat thinking about the time I was forced to eat a bowl of blancmange I'd innocently mistaken for Angel Delight, while a similar encounter with mushy peas left me so traumatised it was another 25 years before I tried them again.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Nowadays, school dinners are the stuff of culinary dreams compared to the gruel we were served up, thanks to campaigning cooks like Jamie Oliver, who made it his personal mission to boost the nation's health by improving the nutritional content of children's meals.

In 2006, new standards were introduced due to growing evidence that poor diets in childhood were linked with obesity in later life, limiting the amount of salt, sugars and fat contained in school dinners.

All well and good you might think, except that attention now has turned to packed lunches.

It's estimated that about half of all British children take a packed lunch to school, but it seems most aren't healthy enough.

Last week, a Leeds University study, commissioned by the Food Standards Agency, found that a little over one per cent of lunchboxes met the guidelines demanded for school dinners, sending parents into a flap.

But should we be worried by this, or are we in danger of over-egging the pudding, so to speak? Scientist and nutritionist, Dr Verner Wheelock, thinks there's been an over-reaction.

He claims that the nutritional standards set for school lunches are a "waste of time" and aren't the "national disaster" they've been made out to be in recent days.

"On the contrary, it is quite clear to me that if we examine the evidence it really is time we stopped worrying about the quality of food children eat at lunch time.

"The latest National Health Survey for England found that the health of schoolchildren was rated as good, or very good, at 94 per cent which means that there has actually been an improvement since the survey was started in 1995."

Dr Wheelock, who runs his own food safety and nutrition training school in North Yorkshire, believes there is no basis for the present concern about the health and diet of the majority of schoolchildren, which has prompted the Government to introduce new standards to control the nutritional content of school lunches and establish the School Food Trust to help implement them.

"This is a typical example of how this Government responds to media hype and completely ignores its own research that, clearly, demonstrates there is no need for official action."

Dr Wheelock argues that these nutritional standards have created huge problems for school caterers, who are now required to keep daily records of the food and ingredients used to prepare school lunches.

He believes, too, that the food trust is a waste of public money and suggests that even if there is a problem with children's nutrition, it won't be resolved by concentrating on school lunches, which make up less than 20 per cent of their total food intake when holidays and weekends are taken into account.

"The National Health Survey shows that between 2001 and 2007 the average number of fruit and vegetable portions consumed by all children increased from 2.5 to 3.3 – thus demonstrating that the nutritional quality of food eaten by children has been improving steadily and substantially. So these improvements were well established long before all the current concern."

There will be a lot of people who agree with what Dr Wheelock says, but others will argue that ensuring packed lunches contain the same energy and vitamins as school dinners is a good way of improving children's diets and tackling the obesity epidemic.

Although it does raise the question, just how many 12 year-olds are going to choose hummus and carrot sticks over a packet of crisps and a sandwich? Not many I suspect.