packed lunches

Cheese sandwiches are no longer the be-all and end-all of packed lunches. Toby Hill looks at what to stock to get the most from the healthy eating trend as children go back to school.

With 3.6m children now taking a packed lunch to school every day, ‘back to school’ is a sales opportunity that wholesalers don’t want to miss. It’s not all about cheese sandwiches, either: snacks, confectionery, flavoured water and catering ingredients all see big increases in sales once kids trudge back into class.

But while the rhythm of holidays and term time has been playing out for decades, trends in parental buying habits have not stayed so consistent. An increased awareness of the influence of nutrition on kids’ ability to concentrate in the classroom has had a significant impact – sugary drinks are banned in many schools and parents are seeking healthier alternatives to sneak into their children’s lunchboxes.

Manufacturers have responded innovatively to this demand for nutritional products that will end up in children’s stomachs rather than the school bins. Here we take a look at a wide range of edible items you can include in your back-to-school range and examine techniques for maximising the opportunity that term time offers.

A little cheesy

A few decades ago, cheese was something that most Brits slipped between slices of bread to make a sandwich. But times have changed and now parents putting together packed lunches can choose from a cornucopia of cheese-based snacks.

“The cheese snacking sector is worth £41m in the convenience channel, with volumes growing 8% year on year and kids’ products holding the lion’s share,” says Will Hemmings, head of cheese marketing at Cathedral City.

Responding to this demand, Dairy Crest has developed products targeted at kids’ lunchboxes, including snack-sized bags of Cathedral City Towers, Shapes and Cheese & Toasties. Older kids might prefer the straightforward rectangles of Cathedral City Minis, which have seen 28% growth over the past year. And for those looking for something healthier, the Cathedral City Mature Lighter bar contains just 99 calories.

Appealing to hurried parents, Dairy Crest also offers sliced and spreadable cheese formats, accelerating the preparation of the classic cheese sandwich. Last year saw the launch of two new Spreadable flavours: Extra Mature and Garlic & Herb.

Coaxing kids to eat healthily

Greater awareness of healthy eating has transformed buying habits across the grocery sector, but perhaps nowhere is this truer than in the context of school packed lunches: 87% of consumers cite ‘wanting control of ingredients’ as the biggest motivation to pack a lunch, according to Mintel Research, while the Children’s Food Trust reports that 86% of parents worry about what their children eat in school.

Of course, although adults often care more about eating healthily, encouraging kids to do the same remains as much of an intractable challenge as it ever was. Several manufacturers are developing products to help parents overcome this age-old impasse. Bear offers a range of pure fruit snacks, Bear Nibbles, which are bagged to look like sweets but are made from pure fruit with no added sugar or concentrates. They even count as one of your ‘five a day’.

“As the lunchbox category becomes increasingly affected by health trends, best practice from wholesalers would focus on creating a healthier range in their back-to-school offering,” suggests Emma Howgego, head of marketing at Bear.

Contributing to convenience in the preparation of packed lunches are Nature’s Finest’s pre-packaged fruit-pots. These are school-approved and meet the requirement for primary-school children to have at least 60g of fruit a day. They also have an extended lifespan, meaning less stress for time-pressed parents. The pots are now available in Mango and Tropical Fruits flavours, and Nature’s Finest has introduced a wholesale pack of 48x113g fruit pots.

Healthy hydration

It isn’t just healthy eating that matters – healthy drinking is important, too. Indeed, fizzy and sugary drinks are now banned from many UK schools, partly to encourage healthier consumption but also to reduce hyperactive behaviour.

Drinks manufacturer Nichols has developed a selection of products to help parents keep their kids hydrated without the help of heaps of sugar. Feel Good for Kids is available in Blackcurrant & Apple and Orange & Pineapple flavours, contains 84% juice, and has no artificial colours or added sugars.

Nichols has also just added a new product to its Vimto range: Vim2o, a still spring water drink flavoured with just enough Vimto to win over kids who turn their noses up at plain water. A 250ml sportscap variant is also available that is ideal for lunchboxes, with an RRP of £2.79 for 6x250ml bottles.

Going free

As well as healthier foods, parents are increasingly looking for natural free-from alternatives to traditional snacks and sandwich fillings.

Eat Real’s 40g snack bags offer a range of vegan, gluten- and lactose-free flavours that also have up to 48% less fat than traditional potato crisps. Flavours include Hummus, Lentil and Quinoa Chips, Quinoa Puffs, and Veggie Straws. Most are also available in smaller 25g handy packs that are perfect for school lunchboxes, come 24 to a box, 80 boxes to a pallet.

Aside from snacks, sales of dairy-free spreads also grew by 14% last year. “Research indicates that 12% of the UK population claim to avoid dairy,” notes Neil Stewart, spreads marketing manager at Dairy Crest. In response to this demand, Dairy Crest last year relaunched its dairy-free spread Vitalite; the latest addition to the range came in February, with the launch of Vitalite Coconut.

Working with the dinner ladies

Wholesalers preparing for the start of the school year need to take into account more than simply panicking parents and their fussy offspring – school catering services will be providing the bulk of the food and drink eaten in schools around the country this September. If wholesalers can work with them, they can open up a whole new market.

Doing so requires careful planning and preparation, as Sarah Robb, channel marketing manager at Premier Foods, explains: “It can be difficult for wholesalers to encourage school caterers to deviate from their regular orders, as many schools plan their menus a whole term at a time. Therefore, it is important to inform those ordering of any product changes and to provide them with recipe solutions and inspiration through telesales or online, depending on their preferred ordering method.”

She adds that menus will often be decided centrally so those at ‘head office’ need to be considered, too.

While school caterers prioritise ensuring they are securely prepared for the whole term, they also want to make their menus exciting. Themed days provide an opportunity to add dishes that may not be regularly included, such as a spooky pumpkin pizza on Halloween or food from different countries around the world during big sporting events.

Wholesalers can make it easy for them to do this by providing recipe ideas and easy-to-adapt products, such as McDougalls Flour Based Mixes, which make it easy to bake a whole range of goods – from garlic bread to Italian focaccia, and from fruit muffins to pizza bases.

Sweet teeth never die

Finally, despite all the trends towards healthy eating and free-from diets, there’s no getting away from it: kids love sweets. Back to school is a huge opportunity for retailers who sell confectionery, trailing closely behind Christmas as the most expensive period for those with children. After all, having survived your first week back at school, surely you deserve a good, sugary binge at the end of Friday?

Sweets supplier Hancocks has a range of wild and wacky sweets, from flying saucers to monster jawbreakers, all carefully designed to catch the imaginations of younger consumers. Its product director, Jonathan Summerley, recommends getting into children’s heads when putting together a range of products.

“The element of challenge in eating a super sour candy or a massive jawbreaker excites the younger market, and the engagement of having a personal gumball dispenser means that a brand will remain memorable,” he says. “Not only does this make for good sales opportunities, but having a ‘tip-top’ range of products also makes for good word of mouth on the playground.”


Parents want to include fruit in their lunchboxes and it’s important to offer loose fruit, as it’s something people like to touch and feel. I also make up multipacks of three different types of fruit – one orange, one apple, one banana – which are really popular.”

Jeet Bansi, Meon View Londis, Stratford-Upon-Avon, Warks

Dennis WilliamsWe have to plan ahead and make sure we promote our back-to-school range at the right time. The theme is usually in our flyers from Premier. We’ll also do an aisle-end display with point of sale material to create a theme in the store a few weeks before school starts again, highlighting stationery and snacks.”

Dennis Williams, Premier Broadway, Edinburgh

JagAfter school, we’ll have as many as 150 children coming into our store at the same time to buy confectionery. I have to make sure I’m well-stocked: it’s too good a sales opportunity to risk running out. I focus on 5p, 10p and 20p sweets as children want their pound to go a long way.”

Jag Aytain, The Rural Shop and Post Office, Linton, Derbyshire

Bianca Gillespie“This is a familyoriented area and the café is quieter during the holidays. Then, when the kids go back to school, we sell a lot of cakes, hot chocolates to the younger children, and lots of milkshakes to the older ones. The older ones even come here to do their homework!”

Bianca Gillespie, Pistachio Café, Brockley, London

Top Tips

1. Align yourself with the trend towards health: Children’s health is coming under growing scrutiny from the media

2. Have the right product mix: Growing sales when children go back to school means having a broad range of products

3. Get your ranging right: Stock back to school products together meaningfully, such as by bringing together kids snacks in two categories: healthy and ‘treaty’

4. Think about the shopper: Mintel’s ‘Kids Snacking’ report shows that ‘getting one of your five-a-day’ is the key purchase driver for parents

5. Effective promotions: Be sure your promotions align with school periods.


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