Free school meals – is it the start of banning the packed lunch?

A ban on packed lunches was never going to be popular with parents. Generally, I don’t think we liked to be told that what we are doing is wrong, that we are somehow stupid and don’t know how to look after our own children.

packed lunch @pinkoddy

But now Nick Clegg has announced a free school meals policy which will begin next September for all Reception, Year 1 and Year 2 (infant) school pupils, and will be worth around £437 per child to family. It is argued that in pilot studies the children each reached the key stage one levels as a consequence – in average putting children two months ahead of where they would have been otherwise.

I think for many they will see this as a welcome move, especially after the tragic loss of four year old Daniel Pelka who was starved to death by his parents. This may be the only nutritious meal a child will receive all day.  4/10ths of children living in poverty do not get free school meals because they are either not entitled to them (earning over £16,000 a year but not considering their outgoings) or their families do not claim them. The policy will also be a welcome relief for working parents after the withdrawal of child benefit, to not be penalised for earning a living.

Jamie Oliver was shot down for suggesting that we make poor choices when it comes to what to feed our children, but as this is being offered to all surely then this is still the same message – we need our children to have free school meals provided for them because we don’t know how to pack a healthy school lunch?

families learning to cook

So does this mean children WILL be given school lunches? Will parents not have to claim them? This will at least end the argument of no money then no food. Are packed lunches going to be banned whether we like it or not and this is to soften the blow? Will this help end any stigma around receiving free school meals, and make it less embarrassing for families who claim them? I, myself, was asked if I had split from my husband when we had to claim them! And if the children are doing all this catching up – will they ever be allowed a holiday in term time again?

Will parents assume their child has eaten well enough at lunch time and therefore not cook them an evening meal? Will this make any difference if they do not? Will this be better for working parents/those busy with after school activities? What about picky eaters – will they then be forced into making sure that they eat what they are given at lunch time? Is this enough? What about children over the age of 7?

What about families with a mix of children in infant and junior? Will parents be more inclined to “cook” something quick if one of their children has had a cooked lunch? Or will this see a demise in families sitting together for an evening meal together? Will children be less likely to learn to cook from modelling their parents?


Is payment the only concern that parents who chose not to go school lunches have? What about those with allergies? What about children who are home educated? Does their diet not count?

I would love to know what others think of this proposal

25 thoughts on “Free school meals – is it the start of banning the packed lunch?”

  1. :Interesting points.

    In theory I love the idea of free school meals, but I’d love to know how they’re going to a) pay for it and b) how will schools with no kitchens deal with it? How can they sit just those years down for free meals when the older ones have to pay? Our village school has no kitchen (despite them having built a purpose built larger school a few years ago – should have included one really), so anyone who wants hot meals has to pay for them (quite expensive) from a farm shop/cafe place, but as a working parent, it’s probably an option I’d go for when he was young so I knew the portions would be enough for him. As they move through the school the older ones with bigger appetites miss out as the younger children get served first, so it’s not as good.

    I do think it should still be a choice – after all, families have to plan with what works in their family life, and many would want to still have a family meal together at home in the evenings.

  2. Initially it sounds a great idea when you look closely at the logistics surrounding this, I’m not convinced. For a start, are school lunches healthy and filling enough to satisfy our young children? There is all this criticism of packed lunches but in my experience school lunches were poor and unsubstantial. My autistic son was never satisfied with the amount of food he was given and often came home from school very hungry. Not surprisingly we moved across to packed lunches which I prepared for all three of my children. This made life easier (and cheaper) because if they all had packed lunches we could then sit down as a family and eat a hot dinner together in the evening.

    The other point is how do we meet different dietary needs? Is it possible for school lunches to cater for everyone with medical needs, cultural needs, pickiness (which often accompanies conditions such as autism) as well as the sensory and social environment of eating a school lunch? One of the major barriers my autistic children encountered was the process of getting a school lunch and sitting and eating in a noisy, smelly hall. It was too much for my children who would often not eat in order to escape this environment and hence, yet again, return home very hungry.

    I understand the importance of removing the stigma around FSM’s but I think removing parental choice is a step too far. Children have different needs and to cater for all children we need different dinner time options. School lunches don’t work for everyone.

    • I quiet agree. My youngest wont eat food that touches another food (unless he has decided it can) and I just know they wouldn’t take that into account.

      Thank you for adding such great points to the discussion.

  3. I do like the idea in theory but I hope they keep the choice of packed lunches because I know from looking at my nieces and nephews that some prefer a packed lunch and eat better too. I;m also not sure who or how they will make sure that school dinners are up to scratch. I think it will definitely benefit the very poor but I hope they don’t start banning parents making decisions here.

  4. It’s a complex issue, but there are many, many children living on restricted and/or unhealthy diets today and poverty isn’t the only factor. For every parent providing their child with a healthy packed lunch there will be two providing an unhealthy packed lunch, who are talking the ‘healthy option’ talk but not walking the walk. Sorry to self-promote, but I wrote an article about this some time ago and it’s probably easier to link to that than say it all again here:

    As far as free school dinners go I’m all for it, but not as a universal benefit. The arguments about nanny states, entitlement criteria and ‘shame’ stopping parents from applying for free school meals are valid ones, but there are other, fairer solutions to those problems than free meals for all. Research shows that children from underprivileged backgrounds are more likely to ‘bunk off’ or refuse to go to school anyway, so assumptions that they would be getting one good meal a day in school could actually marginalise them further.

    I think the biggest factor impacting on children’s diet and health today is the ready availability of junk food – both inside lunchboxes and on the dinner tables at home – and children being enabled to make the wrong choices by parents who, for whatever reason, enable and justify those choices. Poverty is part of that problem, because junk food is generally cheaper than good food, but we also need to take into account that many millions of homes that aren’t in poverty and have plenty of disposable income choose to spend it on takeaways, ready meals and stocking up the ‘treat cupboard’ with cakes, biscuits, crisps, chocolate et al, which are made freely available to ‘starving’ kids who have just manipulated their parents into throwing their meat and three veg into the bin…

    • Have you considered contacting Jamie Oliver’s PR company – I think you’ve said what he was trying to say but without upsetting everyone.

      I really do see where you are coming from and think I’m guilty myself. We had a (home made) curry tonight as really busy – not a single vegetable in it (apart from maybe tomato in the sauce).

  5. Oh it’s a tricky one isn’t it?

    I like the fact that they’ll be free to EVERYONE rather than just less well off families. The thing I really don’t like however is if they do then take away the option of packed lunches. Taking into consideration allergies, food intolerances and fussy eaters, PLUS offering something nutritionally balanced and tasty for everyone seems like a pretty tall order.

    On my son’s intro day at reception we both tried the school dinner and I really wasn’t impressed with the standard of the food at all. Bean reluctantly ate some very overcooked carrots and that was it, his lunch for the day and he still had the rest of the day to get through at school, I felt absolutely terrible and that’s when my mind was made up about packed lunches even though admittedly, going with the free school meals would have helped me out quite a bit.

    He’s not a fussy eater, he eats well and his packed lunches are full of tasty, healthy stuff I know he will eat.

    Absolutely have the option there for everyone to have one if they so wish, but I think forcing it upon those that don’t want them could cause more harm than good. Options are always good, right?

    Sorry for the essay!

  6. My big concern with this is that if children choose to have a packed lunch as is currently and will hopefully still be allowed will the money put aside for their school meal go to waste? Surely schools will be given a lump sum or some sort to provide for all these school meals so where does this cash go if children don’t want the meals?
    I think the money can be better spent elsewhere – the children who need and rely upon school meals can already access them for free.
    It’s an odd decision I don’t quite understand.

  7. I don’t think a ban on packed lunches is realistic but I welcome this news with open arms. Whilst I appreciate your point that parents don’t like to be told what to do – and the majority of parents are more than capable of providing sensible nutritious lunches for their children – I have also seen children bring nothing more than a packet of biscuits (yes a whole packet of biscuits) or just bread & butter – I could go on. Free school dinners will encourage variety & ensure that vulnerable children will get at least one decent meal a day.
    School dinners ought to be more the norm & that’s what this project is seeking to do

  8. My initial reaction when I heard this was great. But then I started thinking, are the school meals really healthy? Luckily I don’t need to worry about how much they eat as my kids eat most things and lots of it!
    Also I then thought, but what will happen to our family evening meal? I like our family time around the table, it won’t feel the same at the table with a sandwich!
    I think I have mixed feelings on this for us personally as a family. x

  9. I’m happy in the knowledge that my childrens school cooks with fresh ingredients on site every day – however mine love packed lunches and so don’t have school dinners. If they did have a cooked school dinner though I wouldn’t cook a main hot meal at tea time but rather serve them what they would have had in their lunch boxes 🙂

  10. great post lovely.
    i would love Burton to have cooked school dinners everyday but I just don’t think he would them (yet at least) and looking over the menu at his new school, going on that alone (as i have no idea of their taste or look) they sound very nice.
    I agree that for children from less advantaged background a free hot meal of any kind has got to be better than nothing at home and i applaud that. BUT i do think that at the end of the day we are the parents and as such we can decide what food we provide our children with, whether that be packed lunches or school dinners.
    We eat together as a family for every meal time and if Daddy isnt around i sit with the boys and 9/10 eat with them too. It is important to do so and if they ate a cooked dinner at lunchtime and only had sandwiches at tea time I guess this could mean they eat that while I ate a cooked meal (if i didnt at lunchtime). Hmmmmm interesting x x

  11. Both my two will be in the Junior school by the time this comes in so it won’t apply to us. Our school now provides excellent school dinners which both of mine have, and often I couldn’t replicate for the price that I pay for them. With the extra activities they do, we often have a hot meal again in the evening because having played rugby at school, then doing Brownies/Cubs or something else a warm meal is better – especially in the winter.

    The number of children at our school who have packed lunches that contain barely anything of nutritious content is depressing, often followed by a take away or Mcdonalds for tea. If they get a decent meal at lunchtime without stigma, that has to be a good thing.

    People who’ve asked about food allergies etc – our school accommodates them extremely well, including complex ones, and for picky eaters, my son now eats WAY more than he ever did at home. The powers of eating with your peers should never be underestimated.

  12. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the hope that my child is being given a good meal. At least if. Pack his lunchbox I make the decision, the food choices and the choices always satisfy him & are healthy. The concern is if they don’t have a budget to buy fresh veg/fruit that I myself would provide and I don’t want to take from the state when like pointed out here it could be funding better equipment in schools ie books and young school children activities and learning. I’m not really clued up on it but the suggestion defiantly unsettles me :/:/ maybe I’m a lil uneducated in the reasoning behind it tho x

  13. I like the idea of free school meals in principle, but I remain to be convinced that it will suit all children and all families. I’m also not clear how Nick Clegg’s magic wand is going to arrange for all this to be delivered when many schools don’t have the facilities. That said I am gutted that my son will just miss out on this. We chiefly go for packed lunches because they are cheaper. I don’t enjoy making them and I would happily give it up.

  14. To be honest, I am not a fan of school dinners. The ones I have need have certainly been no more nutritious than my packed lunch. For example on a Friday Z has fish and chips with cherry pancakes!

    I think it’s a good idea in principle for families that would otherwise struggle to give their child a good lunch, but can the schools really cope if suddenly they are cooking for everyone? I reckon the uptake currently at our infant school is 50%…

    A total ban on packed lunches would certainly annoy me greatly. I think I should have right to choose what my child eats.

  15. I can’t see how they can enforce this it will be down to parental choice. But I will be taking it up for Erin next year – it will just be a continuation of nursery where she has a cooked meal each day at lunchtime.

  16. I’m going to be flippant and say that I’m just gutted it’s next year, as my youngest enters year 3! But in seriousness, I imagine free lunches might encourage some parents to consider it as an alternative to the packed lunch, which in my experience does get children to try new foods. I’m sure they could never ban a packed lunch as clearly there are some children who would not handle it well, and some parents who struggle with the school lunch offering (namely me – but I really don’t have the energy to consider a packed lunch).


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