Packed lunches – cruel to children or parents?

Packed lunch.

Packed lunch. - Credit: Eastern Daily Press © 2005

Childhood obesity will soon be history as Michael Gove unveils a great new plan to teach children how to cook – it is, after all, a known fact that no one who is obese can cook.

Gove (I can't even say his name without adding: 'soft, yielding mouth of a serial killer') has decreed that from September next year, all children between the ages of seven and 14 will learn how to whip up a few classics in the kitchen.

He's also keen to make school dinners compulsory and forbid packed lunches which are, as we all know, simply a form of child cruelty wrapped in clingfilm and foil, or in the case of Club biscuits, paper and foil.

My own children have been cooking at high school since they were 12 and it has been a gigantic waste of everyone's time, effort and money.

On one memorable occasion they were 'taught' how to make smoothies.

On another, they brought in toppings to add to a pre-made pizza base.

Every single ingredient they need must be supplied from home: I have had to send in two teaspoons of vegetable oil in the past and 'a pinch' of dried herbs which I feared might see them arrested for drug dealing on their walk in to school.

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I now have one of the most extensive selections of very, very small containers in the western hemisphere and my children know how to make a face on a pizza base with some red peppers and how to turn on a blender.

To be fair to Gove, they're both incredibly slim, but this is probably because they've always refused to eat what they make at school and, in truth, most of what I cook for them at home.

In fact, my inexpert cookery has single-handedly assured that both my children are a healthy weight: if I'd paid attention in cookery classes at school, I'd be washing the pair of them with a rag on a stick and reinforcing the floor so they could still have a bath.

Gove's suggestion that packed lunches should be banned is on account of the fact that they are packed full of rubbish that makes children fat, hyperactive and completely disinterested in Chaucer.

A few years ago, the Food Standards Agency provided gormless parents like me with a handy guide to what our children should be eating in their packed lunches.

All the list requires is a huge amount of forward planning, a limitless supply of cash, several free hours every evening, a trained chef at your beck and call and an upmarket delicatessen next door. Thank God I live in NR2.

According to the FSA, for a child aged between nine and 12, an 'ideal' lunchbox would contain 'falafel and salad in a pitta bread, hummous, peaches in fruit juice, reduced-fat yoghurt and a small carton of apple juice'.

Quite to whom this lunchbox is 'ideal' is a mystery.

For a start, even if you mummify the pitta bread in clingflim, by the time your child opens their lunch the hummous will have turned wet-ashtray-brown, the salad will be limp and the falafel will have disintegrated into unpleasantly-spiced, greasy dust.

Equally, if your children are anything like mine, the idea of giving them something swimming in liquid and expecting it to have a safe passage to school is like handing them a live grenade with a loose pin.

By the time they'd walked through the gate at home the peaches would have escaped from their Tupperware tomb and would be quietly leaking through every school book, PE kit and uniform within a radius of 100m.

This leaves the reduced-fat yoghurt. Actually, your children will leave the reduced-fat yoghurt – probably after opening it and putting it back inside their lunchbox so you are greeted by a pebble-dashed, rancid school bag at 3.15pm.

In short, the only thing that will be consumed from the lunchbox will be the juice – anything else your child eats will have been bullied out of the weaker kids whose mums let them have mini Swiss rolls and Cheese strings.

For children aged between five and eight, the FSA menu was even more exacting: 'a slice of tomato, mozzarella and pastrami ciabatta pizza, carrot sticks, kiwi and strawberry fruit salad, reduced-fat strawberry fromage frais and a bottle of water'.

What middle-class Jemima devised these menus? Pastrami? Ciabatta? Falafel? Can you get them at the 24-hour garage?

Other 'ideal' menus are even more daunting – poppy seed bagels with liver paté and cucumber, lamb, pea and bean samosas, smoked mackerel and potato salad with mushrooms, spring onions and pine nuts, wholemeal muffins with pilchards, cream cheese and cucumber, quorn and vegetable kebabs: it's like a working mother's express train to a nervous breakdown.

It's these kind of ludicrous reactions to healthy eating and combating obesity levels that send ordinary people screaming towards the nearest Mars Duo bar.

For a start, these menu choices are expensive (whatever the FSA claims), secondly they're difficult to conjure up in the early hours when you roll home with your contact lenses stuck to your eyelids, thirdly they represent a pretty vast leap in culinary know-how if the closest you come to cooking is ripping open a box of Findus Crispy Pancakes.

To be entirely honest, I have one criteria when I make packed lunches for my kids: will they eat them?

I'd rather they had a peanut butter sandwich and a packet of crisps than ignored my goat's cheese tortellini served with beetroot jelly and saffron tendrils that I'd whipped up in between working and doing absolutely everything else.

I do, however, see the genius behind Gove's suggestion that forcing children to eat school dinners will help to cure the obesity crisis: I still remember how the school canteen smelled at lunchtime, frankly the mere thought puts me off my fodder.