It’s a time of change for the lunchbox, with the occasion under pressure from healthy eating concerns, competition from sophisticated sandwich shops and better provision of meals in the workplace. Tracy West reports

Love him or loathe him, Jamie Oliver really started something with his Jamie’s School Dinners TV programme.
He didn’t start the healthy eating debate, of course, but he did raise the stakes, focusing mass media attention on what children are eating in schools.
Never a day goes by, it seems, without some report or other about lunchbox police on the prowl or a school banning a particular foodstuff.
One might assume that suppliers are tearing their hair out over all this but many put their lines under the nutritional microscope long ago. Walkers, in a programme that started last autumn, is committed to reducing the level of saturated fat in crisps while Kraft has replaced the sugary drink and chocolate bars in Dairylea Lunchables with orange juice and yoghurt. According to TNS data, children are important consumers of lunchbox meals, with 57% taking out a lunchbox in a typical fortnight and representing 29% of all lunchbox meals consumed [TNS Family Food Panel, 52 w/e November 2004].
However, a Mintel report into children’s lunchboxes revealed that as the child population is projected to decline over the next five years so too will the number of lunchbox meals they eat - down from 1.7 billion lunches eaten at school every year now to 1.6 billion by 2009.
New guidelines from the National Governors’ Council say that there is a common misconception that packed lunches brought from home are healthier than a school meal. The NGC, in conjunction with the Food Standards Agency, wants schools to set guidelines for the contents and gain parents’ agreement to a lunchbox policy.
The NGC guidelines take Stoke Prior First School in Worcestershire as an example, where parents and kids were involved in encouraging raised standards. The scheme had support from the head teacher and staff, and parents were kept informed through newsletters and leaflets.
There was a four-week programme of events including an anonymous survey of the contents of lunchboxes where children used their numeracy and IT lessons to analyse results. A gourmet tasting evening was sponsored by a supermarket with class visits to the store.
A follow-up survey of
lunchboxes showed a significant increase in the inclusion of wholemeal bread, fruit, salad and water and a decrease in the amount of crisps and chocolate bars.
Children may be important to the lunchbox market but it is in fact adult males who are the main consumers. According to TNS, they account for 42% of all lunchboxes consumed.
Health is an important driver for the lunchbox occasion, and is most important for women and children.
Claire Nuttall, director of retail brands at brand consultancy Dragon says lunchtime for women is often the single healthiest point of their day because they get to choose exactly what they want to eat.
Ben Johnson, brand director of Cranks, says TV programmes such as You Are What You Eat mean consumers are becoming much more mindful of ‘hidden’ or undesirable ingredients.
“Balance is definitely a key theme. Even though the lunchbox is a method of flexible eating, it doesn’t need to be full of quick-fix, unhealthy snacks. Any meal should be about nutritional balance, combining protein and complex carbohydrates, important for energy levels, with the vitamins found in salads, juices and fruit to boost levels of concentration.”
Consumption from the lunchbox has fallen 5% meanwhile, as consumers go
instead for grab-and-go meal deals, which are now more diverse and numerous than ever before. Most grocery multiples and many c-stores now offer lunch chillers sited at the front of the store, often with a separate till to cater for all those cash-rich, time-poor lunch consumers.
As for generating sales of lunchbox foods, Nuttall is clear: “Retailers need to keep an eye on natural and healthy foods that are delivered in interesting and tasty ways.
“It will require education, but the principles about foods which are naturally higher in vitamins and minerals and nutritional benefits should be fairly self explanatory and simple for consumers to take on board. Easy, quick and no-mess solutions are what consumers want.”