School lunches may offer more healthy options than ever before – but pupils still tend to opt for sandwiches, pizza and puddings, according to new Sheffield University research.
Nutrition experts looked at the eating habits of 2,660 youngsters from two large Yorkshire secondaries, where a number of freshly prepared hot dishes was on offer.
But they found that most students preferred simple ‘grab and go’ choices – which are more likely to lead to weight problems and obesity.
Those receiving free school meals, however, were far more likely to choose nutritionally valuable dishes of the day.
The Sheffield team believes the free meal programme is making an important contribution to the diet of poorer children, especially where there may be little guarantee of healthy food at home.
They believe school meals can substantially affect a pupil’s diet and overall health and wellbeing – as there are more than eight million schoolchildren in England and more than three million eat a school meal every day.
Team leader Dr Hannah Ensaff said: “Eating behaviour is learned early on and food preferences established in childhood and adolescence tend to persist into adult life, with related consequences for long-term health.
“Healthy eating habits are crucial to reducing children’s risk of health problems, both long and short term.”
Dr Margo Barker added: “The habits of students receiving free school meals compared with those that pay for them are of particular interest.
“Students receiving free school meals made nutritionally superior choices in the school canteen. This seems to be evidence for offering free school meals beyond those families of lowest income.”