One of the most common conversations and debates I have with the media, schools, parents and even children sometimes, is overall, what is more cost efficient – Packed Lunches or School Meals 🤔

Fighting it out 🤼‍♂️

IN THE BLUE CORNER 🔵 you have packed lunches – parents know what their kids are eating, children can independently select what they know their child will eat; students can, quite often, go in to the dining space, eat it and go straight outside – without having to queue for half an hour to be given something they’re not that interested in. What’s more, they’re cheaper than school meals right?

Not quite, IN THE RED CORNER 🔴 represents school meals – the Mike Tyson of lunchtimes – old as the day is long and made an impressive come back in recent years, but still – as a nation we are stuck in the past remembering the ‘old days’ the ‘pink custard and smash’ days (🤔), the ‘Coca-cola sponsor kitchens’ days, the ‘you’ll get what you’re given whether you like it or not’ days. The fact is, those days are long gone… aren’t they?

Revolution one ☝️

We all know about the Feed me better campaign (That goofy Essex fella’s first initiative to tackle school meals), so I don’t need to bang on about how that began the snowball of tackling ‘the school lunch’.

But, what followed was the revision of all foods served in school and the releasing of revised, and quite stringent, food standards (see Nutritional Standards for school lunches). This, without doubt, changed a culture of school meals in England – from that day forward.

Following collated feedback of the possible complexity of these standards, an independent review (six years later), revised the standards and out the other end popped the School Food Plan:

 “designed to make it easier for school cooks to create imaginative, flexible and [more importantly], nutritious menus. They will be mandatory in all maintained schools, new academies and free schools.”

The School Food Plan

Revolution two ✌️

A year previous, a second revolution in school meals occurred as we saw the introduction of the Universal Infant Free School Meals (UIFSM) policy which stipulated all children (in state funded schools) in reception, year 1 and year 2 should be entitled to a free school lunch. The Aim was both to improve academic attainment, via positive nutrition, and to save families significant funding over an average school year. The first year alone saw an increase of students consuming a well balanced, decent school meal by 50%!


So here we go, the head line act, the BIG QUESTION…

Whilst disregarding the fact that you and I could fill a lunchbox full of Cheerio’s and call it ‘lunch on a budget’, I wanted to explore, in detail, something that has never been done before. Something that will answer genuine questions for all – parents, teachers. Students, health ministers, catering providers, food manufacturers, supermarkets – the queen; I know you’ve all wanted to know: 


Well, my friend. It took about 43 hours of my life, sweating in my office but we’ve got the results [in a funky table below]; but first, some caveats I had to contend with to sub out the naysayers:


1️⃣   I collated the menus based on SFP recommendations based on maximum portion sizes recommend as if the menu being wrote was for a seven-year-old child (mid way through primary education).

2️⃣ Prices were worked out, per day, based on the amount used. However, were brought from each supermarket as if I were buying enough for ‘three weeks worth’ to prevent a ‘weight and quantity’ bias (see below).

3️⃣ To disregard any ‘but you’ll have staples in the cupboard already’, or, ‘you can’t buy 43g of bread’, or even, ‘if you only use that amount it will go out of date’ – for this project two things must be noted: I went shopping and ‘purchased enough food’ as if I was going to make the same menus for three weeks – i.e. If I needed a pitta bread for the Friday, my ‘shop’ would be the cost of three pitta breads, divided by three to equate the day’s meal, this is to allow for some fluidity of quantity whilst respecting the three-week cycle catering providers abide too. Secondly, expiry dates do not exist in the world of this trial.

4️⃣ I found a source stating the biggest supermarket chains in the UK as listed here and opted for the top two in the market: Tesco and Sainsbury’s. I also chose the most popular budget supermarket – Aldi.

5️⃣ Whilst shopping, where possible, I did not purchase any value or premium brands, instead opting for the mid range items. 

6️⃣ All prices were correct as of July 2018 in all stores based in Leamington Spa. The costs per item were worked out based on suggested weights (see SFP and photos).


First things first, we had to collate recommendations of food groups using the School Food Plan here, which gave us a table looking like the below:

Once food groups had been deciphered, I collated a menu paying close attention to a good variety, whilst ensuring all food groups were ticked off, as recommended, for the week – including a ‘meat free day’ as seen below:

With the menus collated, I worked out the weights and quantities needed for a primary school child (aged seven) taken directly from ‘Portion sizes and food groups’ on page six of the SFP:

With all of this admin complete, once all weights and quantities had been worked out, I took my (on reflection – inappropriate) A3 shopping list to the supermarket and began shopping:

Seven (genuinely) hours later, I stumbled back into my office, to begin a night of data collection: 


SO THIS IS IT! All the data was collated, the costs worked out, the menus wrote, the standards followed and the answer to THE BIG QUESTION



Quite simply – no 😕 



As you can see, Aldi, as expected, offered us the best returns in terms of output of spend (£14.50) and Sainsbury’s (albeit being just £2 more) came out the most expensive at £16.50 for the weeks shop. But neither can proudly boast that in their stores you can buy a ‘well balanced nutritious packed lunch’ (using the SFP as guidance) for less than a school meal…

But you’re forgetting something…

The above table isn’t ‘it’, it isn’t as clear as ‘well that’s that – concluded for now’- we’ve forgotten a number of really key points:

Firstly, when your child has a school meal in his dining space, he’s learning how to use a knife and fork, he’s chatting to his friends, he’s trying foods – sharing experiences with his peers, he has independent access to a fresh salad bar every single day.

The food that he’s offered is not only ‘balanced and nutritious’, but is value for money based on purchased quantity – that 70% Cocoa brownie with beetroot slyly crammed into it to ‘up the iron’ after he’d just eaten a good portion of, red label approved chicken, served with a side of locally sourced veg and ‘home made’ bread that was made on site just hours earlier, certainly would cost both you and I a lot more than £2.50 a day… and did you know all of the above is a standard expectation for school meals providers these days?

We completely forget, as parents, that children spend 30 hours a week in school, that’s 30 hours away from home. Those 30 hours should not only be the most exciting 30 hours of their lives, but an opportunity to play around with taste buds, to be exposed and self educate themselves about food so when they do come home to you they’ve made choices and can tell you about what they like and dislike. At the weekend, when you’ve got them all to yourselves, treat them to something – let them tell you what their favourite food was this week at school; let them tell you what they want off the menu next week – but for goodness sake, stop wasting money on foods that are either overly priced (in comparison to what your school meals provider has provided pound for pound [penny for penny]) or have taken you seven hours to produce!

If you have a child that is between 4-7 years old, in a primary school, in England– you have a DUTY to ensure he is having a school meal – Theresa has already tried to swipe them away our kids once. I have no doubt you could provide a ‘decent’ meal if push came to shove – but think of little Benjamin whose Mum hasn’t got the funds to spend £2-3 a day on any type of food once free school meals gets taken away from her.

If you have children between ages 7-11 and you’re in the 1.9% of parents providing your child with the most beautifully balanced packed lunch for £2 a day – you’re not spending enough time with your child. Buy a school meal. I can almost guarantee it’s better than anything you and I can produce.


Next steps

  • I’d like to have spent time filming this whole process to educate those in future, It would be good to spend some time exploring not just consumers views on food purchased in a supermarket, but that of children – on tape.
  • I’ve had a number of conversations, with many food manufacturers, as I believe there is a market to devise a ‘pack’ of food that is balanced for parents that should be available in the mainstream supermarkets that can be brought for [avg.] £2 a day.
  • I further believe that in school dining spaces more can and should be done to restrict the content of poor quality nutrition in lunchboxes – one of the key things we do is to embed a ‘water for all’ policy in school – adding fruits to water for flavour. Regardless of who your child is, eventually he will drink the water – I’ve seen it thousands of times.
  • There is certainly scope to spend some time with a manufacture purchasing, buying and preparing a school lunch menu offering oppotunity to explore time saving, cost effective nutritional foods offered to students

Final Discussion

This project secures that regardless of what we think and feel about school meals, they really are a money saver. I’ve seen hundreds of school lunches in my time and continue to spend my day to day improving every single school lunchtime I visit, we independently ensure every single school lunchtime has an atmosphere that anyone would want to eat in. The components of ‘good school food’ is usually alright – it’s the environment it’s prepared in, the support staff have producing it or more importantly, the separation removed away from the customers (students) that affects the success of all. I believe that if we spend more time investing time and resource ensuring each and every dining space in the United Kingdom is the most socially encouraging, calm, happy, independent, educating and healthy atmosphere every single day then that is the answer to our obesity problem. Yes, all children should be entitled to a great school meal – and we’re working on that, but the atmosphere in which they eat it is next – from both a physical and mental wellbeing perspective.

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