Parents to be told what to put in packed lunches

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The Independent Online

Proposals by Ruth Kelly, the Education Secretary, call for schools to consider whole-school food policies to address the question of packed lunches and other food brought into schools, including advice to parents on healthy lunchboxes.

The new approach also raises the possibility of imposing restrictions on pupils leaving school at lunchtime to go in search of the local chip-shop.

Salmon fishcakes and boiled potatoes are to be introduced in place of traditional deep-fried battered fish and chips under a new healthy eating regime planned for schools from next September.

Yesterday, after weeks of consideration, ministers finally unveiled their plans for meeting the demand of the television chef Jamie Oliver for healthier school dinners. Under the new regime, every child will have to eat at least one portion of salad or vegetables a day and at least one portion of fruit.

Oily fish such as mackerel should be on the menu at least once every three weeks, and only two deep-fried products can be consumed in any single week. Salt, confectionery and savoury snacks will be banned from the lunch table.

These are the recommendations of the independent school meals panel set up by Ms Kelly, and follow on from her announcement last week that junk food would be banned from school vending machines.

Mr Oliver, whose recent series on Channel 4 about school dinners is credited by many for the Government's initiative, said he believed children should not be given a choice of whether to eat a healthy dinner or stodge. "If we are subservient to the kids we will fall down straightaway, without doubt! I don't think it's about kids' choice."

His stance has been backed by the panel, whose recommendations now go out for consultation over the next 13 weeks. It concludes that it is "only by constructively controlling choice that we will widen children's food experiences".

The panel warns that, without controlled choice, children will opt for fattier foods. A survey of pupils' eating habits revealed that 48 per cent opted for high-fat main dishes, 48 per cent chose chips or other potato products cooked in oil, 45 per cent chose soft drinks and 24 per cent cakes and muffins.

Only 2 per cent selected fruit, 3 per cent fruit juice and 6 per cent vegetables or salad.

The Government has not given an indication of what sanctions lie in store for a school that ignores the nutritional standards, other than black marks in Ofsted inspections. Headteachers have speculated whether ministers will adopt the tough line they have taken on truancy to school dinners and threaten criminal proceedings.

The panel pointed out in its report that one in five boys and one in four girls were obese or overweight in 2002. The British Medical Association said conservative estimates indicate one in three girls will be obese by 2020.

The panel recommends that cookery lessons become part of the compulsory curriculum for pupils aged 11 to 14. But it warns that introducing healthier food could cost more than the £220m earmarked by ministers over three years to implement the package and recommends an extra £167m.

Margaret Morrissey, spokeswoman for the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, said: "For there to be an improvement in the nutritional quality of the meals provided there will need to be an increase in the overall cost."

A spokeswoman for the Local Authority Caterers' Association said: "Some local education authorities may be able to find the money, but the association is concerned that not all will be in this position." This, she argued, "may mean that parents may have to pay much higher costs for meals".

'Children are curious about food'

Review of sample school dinners by Ursula Arens, of the British Dietetic Association

JUNIOR MENU

This is a nice menu for juniors: a balance of popular foods they will be familiar (pizza and minced beef) with perhaps more adventurous items they will hopefully come to enjoy just as much (salmon fishcakes, vegetable risotto).

There may be less choice than currently available but the menu always provides a daily item for vegetarians or pupils not wanting beef or pork.

Chips are not on the menu but roast potatoes are just as popular and the large variety of starchy foods will help provide children with the energy they need to keep going. The menu provides two portions of vegetable and fruit daily: hopefully children will be encouraged to try the variety offered. Most children are a bit reluctant to try "new" foods but equally are curious and willing to do things they observe their peers doing.

SENIOR MENU

This menu is geared to providing enough energy for the fast-growing and active teenager with enough variety to suit those worried about excess weight gain.

Food for teens must be filling enough to keep the temptations of crisps and fizzy drinks occasional rather than daily.

Fresh fruit and vegetables are on offer daily but need to be supported by promotion and persuasion to compete with the fast-and-filling items.

Dairy items are also on offer daily and again should be encouraged to support the calcium requirements of fast-developing bones.

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