"You'll find they've all got chocolate and crisps," said headteacher Roy Tedscoe, ruefully, on hearing that The Independent wanted to inspect the content of his pupils' packed lunches.
He was not too wide of the mark – although children at his school did do markedly better than the national average, where only one in every 100 packed lunches meets government nutritional standards.
Chocolate abounded. The first lunchbox we uncovered at Coleraine Park Primary School in Tottenham, north London, contained a chocolate spread sandwich on white bread and a packet of crisps. Another included a cheese pastry, a packet of Hula Hoops and a chocolate biscuit. However, we did then unearth one containing an orange, orange juice, water and a chicken sandwich. Given that about 80 students at Coleraine Park come in every day with packed lunches, we were lucky to find one so nutritional in its content.
According to research published today by the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, just 1.1 per cent of children's packed lunches meet nutritional standards for school meals. A study of 1,300 lunchboxes taken to school by pupils aged eight and nine found that crisps, sweets and sugary drinks took precedence over fruit, vegetables and milk-based products. Permitted savoury or sweet foods with a low fat content, vegetables and permitted drinks including natural juices, milk and pure water were the least likely items to be provided by parents.
Only one in 10 children had a portion of any vegetable. More than one in four (27 per cent) had lunches containing sweets, savoury snacks and sugary drinks, while four in 10 had sweets and snacks but no sugary drink. Nutritional guidelines ban schools giving sweets, savoury snacks or artificially sweetened drinks for lunch but there are no rules for pack ups.
The researchers, from the Centre for Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Leeds University, said the evidence showed that food quality in packed lunches was "poor". "Most lunches contained restricted foods and drinks such as crisps and cakes," they added.
New standards for school lunches had brought "drastic improvements", they said. But with figures showing that about half of Britain's seven million pupils eat a packed lunch every day, the survey is bad news for the Government's drive to improve the quality of school dinners.
The School Food Trust, which promotes healthy eating, said the survey showed the take-up of school meals needed to be improved. "It highlights why buying a well-balanced school lunch is the most nutritious choice for children and young people," said its chief executive, Judy Hargadon.
She said the trust would support any school which adopted a healthy eating policy on packed lunches.
But, according to Mr Tedscoe, it is not as simple as that. Coleraine Park primary has issued healthy eating guidelines to parents of children who take packed lunches – but it seems that very few obey them.
"They argue that 'If I put broccoli spears in my child's packed lunch, they will not eat it and will throw it in the bin'," Mr Tedscoe said. "The healthy food and the more unappetising food they aren't going to touch. The parents say 'I'll give them what I know they're going to eat'. To them, it's not about healthy eating."
What's in the box? A nutritionist examines the contents of four typical packed lunches
*No 1: Crisps, water, chocolate spread sandwich on white bread, cheese string.
*Verdict: "Nuts, dried fruit or dairy products such as yoghurt would be better options than crisps, as they provide more vitamins and minerals," says Claire French, of the School Food Trust. "This lunch doesn't contain any fruit or vegetables."
*No 2: Orange juice, orange, water, chicken sandwich.
*Verdict: "It's good to see fruit juice. Chicken is a low-fat source of protein but if you swapped it for ham or beef, the iron and zinc content of this lunch could be higher. Iron and zinc are important for intellectual development and a healthy immune system."
*No 3: Ham and cheese roll, banana, probiotic yoghurt drink, fruit juice.
*Verdict: "Both cheese and milk drinks are great sources of calcium, which is important for bone development. But flavoured milk and yoghurt drinks can contain high amounts of added sugars which harm teeth. This lunch does contain a portion of fruit but no vegetables."
*No 4: Crisps, chocolate biscuit, Turkish cheese pastry.
*Verdict: "Savoury snacks and confectionery products tend to be high in fat and sugar. This lunch doesn't contain either fruit or a portion of vegetables or salad. It is also missing a drink; including fruit juice would provide a portion of fruit as well as quenching thirst."