To compare the food and nutrient intakes of primary school children eating school dinners and packed lunches.
Six-hundred and twenty-one 7-year-old children participating in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in South West England.
Diet was assessed by 3-day unweighed food record.
The composition of both types of school meals compared unfavourably with dietary guidelines. Intakes of energy, non-starch polysaccharides (NSP), calcium, iron, folate, retinol equivalents, zinc, copper, magnesium, iodine and riboflavin were too low, and intakes of total and saturated fat were too high. However, children who ate school dinners had higher lunchtime intakes of protein, starch, NSP and most vitamins and minerals and lower intakes of sugar (14.2 and 20.9% of energy in school dinners and packed lunches, respectively, P<0.001) and saturated fat (12.0 and 16.2%, P<0.001). Only around half of the recommended amount of fruit and vegetables was eaten by children having either type of school meal. There were also differences in the whole day's nutrient intake according to school meal type. Children eating packed lunches had lower daily intakes of potassium and zinc, and higher intakes of sugar and saturated fat. Differences in nutrient intake were independent of maternal education.
The food and nutrient content of both school dinners and packed lunches needed improvement. However, the standard of food brought from home by children was, if anything, worse than that served at school. Recent moves to improve school dinners will need to be complemented by education about what constitutes a healthy packed lunch.