The Government has recently announced that school dinners are to undergo a much-needed audit and overhaul. It seems that this particular move towards healthier eating has been come about, at least in part, as the result of Jamie Oliver’s efforts to highlight the generally woeful quality of food on offer in UK schools. Bearing in mind the unwholesome reputation such fare has, I welcome any genuine improvements in this area. However, I was somewhat concerned to read a recent study in the British Medical Journal which suggests that the health of children eating school dinners is no worse, and in fact may even be better, than those children who bring food in from home.
This week, therefore, my aim is to offer some constructive advice for parents who take their children’s school lunch into their own hands. Sandwiches are a stock lunch box item, but are a food I have at least some resistance to. One reason for this is that wheat-based breads, even wholemeal varieties, tend to release their sugar relatively quickly into the bloodstream. The resultant surges in blood sugar can lead to peaks in the hormone insulin which can only help to fuel the burgeoning rates of childhood obesity and diabetes.
The blood sugar and insulin stimulating effects of bread are often compounded by other commonly-found packed lunch items such as crisps, biscuits and confectionery. While finding alternatives to sandwiches is not always easy, it can help to at least surround these with nutritious foods that might also help to temper the sugar release from bread. Good options with respect to this include fresh fruit such as apples, satsumas and tangerines, as well as cut-up veggies such as carrot, cucumber and celery. Nuts make a good swap for crisps: these slow sugar-releasing and highly nutritious foods have been linked with a range of beneficial effects including relative protection from heart disease. Like nuts, dried versions of some fruits such as apricots and apples are intrinsically nutritious and, despite their sugary nature, tend to liberate their sugar quite slowly into the bloodstream.
As far as the sandwich itself is concerned, I recommend using 100 per cent wholemeal bread. While generally fast sugar-releasing, this is at least more nutritious than its more refined counterparts. Further nutritional value can be added by using a wholesome filling such as chicken, tinned sardine or tinned salmon with some salad. Sardine and salmon represent particularly good choices on the basis that these are rich in so-called omega-3 fats that have been linked with health brain development and function in children. For vegetarian children, I recommend eggs that are enriched with brain-boosting fats. These may be used a sandwich filling, but in hard-boiled form also represent a healthy lunchbox item. If good nutrition is the aim, it can help to think outside the usual lunchbox.