New research from nutrition experts at the University of Sheffield has revealed that sandwiches, pizza and puddings are the most popular dishes with pupils.
They also found that youngsters who receive free school meals are far more likely to choose a freshly-prepared hot meal than other pupils.
The pioneering study, involving 2,660 pupils from two large Yorkshire secondary schools, discovered that, despite secondary schools offering a number of freshly prepared hot meal options, pupils are disregarding these in favour of foods such as sandwiches and pizza.
Lead research author Dr Hannah Ensaff, who did the study while at the university’s department of oncology, said: “Sandwiches and pizza are grab and go foods. The pupils don’t actually sit down and have them a lot of the time. There’s an element of that in secondary schools. They eat during break times.
“They want their lunch hour free to do sports activities or meet up with their friends.”
She added: “Why are they choosing those things and could they be encouraged to sit down? How could they be marketed?
“Youngsters are out in the real world, used to commercially-driven marketing, so there’s a lot that could be done to encourage them to make choices that we think are better for them.”
She said that the dish of the day was the focus of making sure that school lunches were nutritionally balanced but the research suggests that more should be done to make the ‘grab and go’ foods better balanced as well.
Hannah said: “Free school meal students were twice as likely to go for a main meal compared to other students. These differences are significant. They’re more likely to choose the main meal and dish of the day.
“We know they’re behaving like this but don’t know why. It might have something to do with price.
“Some of the dishes of the day comprised a meal deal, so it might be they’re attracted to that, or it might be they appreciate the fact that it’s a good meal.”
Dr Margo Barker, senior lecturer in nutritional epidemiology, said: “The patterns of food choice of students receiving free school meals and those that pay for them are of particular interest. Students receiving free school meals made nutritionally superior choices in the school canteen, although surveys show that their overall diet is lacking.
“This anomaly seems to be evidence for those calling for policy to extend free school meals beyond those families of lowest income.”
Hannah said: “All of this is related to childhood obesity and whether we can find some mechanism to encourage healthier eating or make students aware of what healthier eating constitutes. Children spend 180 days a year in school, so this is a big component of their diet. Schools are places of education and they need to encourage good practice.”
Obesity in childhood is fast becoming a global epidemic and within the UK is at unprecedented levels with 28 per cent of girls and 31 per cent of boys aged from two to 15 being classified as obese or overweight.
Nutrition and obesity are public health priorities due to their links with chronic and life-threatening diseases as well as huge associated costs for the NHS.
There are more than eight million schoolchildren in England and more than three million eat a school meal every day, contributing to 590 million school lunches consumed every year.
Evidence shows healthy habits acquired in early life are more likely to stay with children later on as well.
Hannah suggested that parents look at the menus, which are often published on the school website, to see what’s on offer. She said: “The specially-prepared meals will be on there. Parents could try discussing: ‘What did you have for dinner today? Find out what they’re eating and how often they’re eating it. If you have pizza day in, day out, there’s a lot of empty calories there.”
Hannah said school meals have improved over the past five to 10 years, so parents who send children with packed lunches might be pleasantly surprised by what is on offer.
She also suggested encouraging children to try different foods to see if they like them. She added: “Try getting the kids involved with food shopping and cooking at home to develop a better relationship with food.”