A study has found that although youngsters are offered a range of freshly prepared hot meals every day, sandwiches and pizzas are by far the most popular items in school canteens.
Researchers from the University of Sheffield analysed the lunch choices of 2,660 students from two large Yorkshire secondary schools over a period of seven months.
Both schools had National Healthy Schools status and both offered three healthy dishes of the day, such as roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, shepherd’s pie and vegetarian curry. Pizzas, pasta, sandwiches and jacket potatoes were also available.
At the first school, sandwiches and pizzas accounted for more than 71 per cent of the meals chosen, while less than nine per cent of meals were “more nutritionally valuable” dishes complying with government nutritional standards.
At the second school, just over three-quarters of meals were “grab and go” lunches while eight per cent were healthy choices.
The study, first published in the journal Public Health Nutrition, suggested that new nutritional standards should be drawn up for sandwiches and pizzas – or these items could be made more expensive to encourage youngsters to choose healthy meals.
The research revealed that children eating free school meals were more likely to choose nutritionally valuable freshly prepared dishes.
Dr Margot Barker, senior lecturer in nutritional epidemiology at Sheffield University, added: “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.”