They’re on to us parents. There is nowhere to hide. Every evening, up and down the land, parents are nervously going through their children’s school bags, searching for the lunchbox in the hope they’ll find it empty and not bearing the same food it was packed with that morning or, worse still, a note from the school informing them that they have, once again, breached school lunchbox policy.


That’s the percentage of children who use a lunchbox at least once a fortnight - up 2.7% since 2011, according to Kantar

Such is the fuss about children’s lunchboxes at the moment that an official review into school food has concluded that the best course of action is for the schools to ban school lunchboxes altogether and to insist kids eat cooked school meals instead.

A quick search of school websites in the UK will find that most have a section on lunchbox policy. Some simply recommend ‘healthy food’, while others have tough rules on foods containing sugar, fat or salt.

Some manufacturers have faced the challenge head on. Four years ago, when the government introduced its guidelines, flavoured milk brand Yazoo from Friesland Campina adapted its recipe and gained ‘school approved’ status. Trade marketing manager Helen Cridge says that the company’s 3x200ml pack sells particularly well at back-to-school time. “We definitely see a spike in sales at back to school because mums want their children to go off with the best of everything.”

However, she says that the disparity in the credentials of different flavoured milks, with some leaning more towards a confectionery product, has led to a perception among some parents that all flavoured milk is a sugary treat. The company is seeking to address this and is currently considering a change in packaging which will emphasise the product’s milk credentials. “We want to make sure mums know that we are a milk with a bit of flavour, rather than a confectionery product with milk in it,” Cridge explains.

Retailer’s view

“We find that after the August bank holiday is over and the season for barbecues and summer is pretty much done, people start to think in terms of back to school and the season really kicks off.

“We definitely see an uplift in sales in certain areas at this point. Londis actually has a strategy in terms of lunchbox solutions, with recipe cards and healthy options promotions, and we merchandise things in the same place within the snacking area. The products the mums buy tend to be things like bread, ham, Dairylea Dunkers, Cheesestrings, small fruits and chocolate. Mums are looking for something healthy, but it must represent value for money.”

Ramesh Shingadia, Londis Southwater, West Sussex

She thinks that the government could do more to help the market, by pushing the ‘milk and approved products’ message in schools. “I think if manufacturers do it there tends to be scepticism.”

Crisp snack Pom Bear has also undergone reformulation, including a 40% reduction in salt and the switch to sunflower oil, to keep its ‘good guy’ credentials among crisp brands. Intersnack marketing manager for Pom Bear Steve Harger says: “There’s been a proactive campaign to make the product better, but you can’t get away from the fact that it contains fat. I think mums appreciate the fact that it contains no MSG, artificial colours and flavourings.”

The brand has recently added an extension to the range with Zoo, a mix of new animal shapes in a ‘really cheesy’ flavour, and the first time the brand has moved away from the bear shape. Harger says that while the brand is aimed at kids, research carried out on behalf of the company found that 50% of those who ate the brand were adults.

Harger believes that many of the adult users are those who used to eat it as children. “We find that at about 10 children move out of the brand, although girls stay longer, then at about 20, when they move away from home, they move back into the brand.”

Innocent Drinks kids’ brand manager Gurdeep Loyal says that its brand credentials help reassure mums that they’re not going to encounter the dreaded lunchbox police. “We know that mums can find it difficult to get fruit into kids. As all Innocent smoothies and juices contain one of a child’s recommended 5-a-day, with no added sugar or concentrates, mums can feel good about sending their kids off to school with an Innocent kids’ product in their lunchbox.” The brand also includes games and activities on its packaging.

Gerber Juice Company commercial director James Logan says that products which excite children and really engage them will always tend to do better -however, mum has to be okay with the purchase, too. “The gate-keeper, mum, has to feel the products are healthy. With our Fruit Burst range of children’s juice drinks, we consulted parents and schools during the development. The result is a range of vivid products that stand out from the crowd and offer unique flavours while getting approval from parents who look for vitamins and natural ingredients.”

A little bit of everything

According to Mintel, health continues to remain a huge issue for parents, with three in 10 encouraging their children to eat healthier snacks. Factors such as 5-a-day and natural positioning such as ‘high in calcium’ are important for a third of parents when choosing snacks. However, parents are still happy to include non-healthy snacks in their children’s lunchboxes. While 86% of parents said that they favoured fruit, 73% bought crisps and salty snacks. Yogurt and fromage frais scored high with 72%, but so did sweet biscuits at 62% (in fact, the same amount gave sweet biscuits as a snack as bread or toast). Cheese snacks came in at 58%, and cereal bars at 58%. However, chocolate, sweets, crackers and cakes all ranked higher than fresh vegetables and dried fruit, nuts and seeds.

Eating al-desko

The lunchbox opportunity doesn’t stop with children, though, as grown-ups are just as keen to bring in their own food to work.

According to UBUK shopper marketing controller Helen Chandarana, the current financial situation is turning more people on to the lunchbox trend in a bid to save themselves some cash. “As consumers’ disposable income continues to come under pressure, the lunchbox occasion has become even more important to consumers and, as a result, to our business and to the category overall.

“Last year we saw the lunchbox category grow 3% overall, and we expect this to continue for the foreseeable future as more consumers try to reduce their weekly expenditure by stocking up on lunchbox items that will last them the week.”

Adults also no longer have the luxury of the time to take a leisurely lunch. According to research from the University of Sussex, commissioned by Kingsmill earlier this year, UK workers take on average 29 minutes for lunch, and research by BBC Breakfast in February this year pointed to an office culture where it was not unusual for people to skip a lunch period, with 54% of workers saying they eat their lunch at their desk and 20% saying that they felt pressured to do so.

When children are left to their own devices, however, it’s not that surprising that chocolate, crisps and sweets take over the top spots.

When looking for snacks, parents search for specific cues, according to Mintel. The ‘one of a 5-a-day’ message ranks highest in favourable purchasing, while low sugar and salt comes in second. Surprisingly, parents are more swayed by the natural proposition than the no artificial additives, colourings, preservatives and flavours message. However, parents of different aged children look for different benefits from their food. Added vitamins and high in calcium and high fibre come in at under 20% of parents buying for the 7-15 age group, but figure much more significantly among parents shopping for the 7-10 age group, while parents of 11- to 15-year-olds are more likely to look for snacks which are high in fibre.

Among parents, the mantra seems to be ‘compromise sensibly’, with over half of parents saying that it’s okay for their children to eat unhealthy snacks ‘some of the time’. However, showing the importance of appealing to the end user, the same figure (49%) said that they bought snacks that their children wanted. And it’s obvious that parents sometimes get confused, with 28% saying that it’s often hard to know which snacks are good for their child and 14% wanting more guidance on the issue.

Time to shine

The recent horsemeat in school meals scandal has triggered a rise in children taking lunchboxes to school, estimated at about 10%. According to the Children’s Food Trust, 54% of English primary school pupils and 60% of secondary school pupils took a packed lunch during the period 2011-2012. According to Kantar, children are now driving the growth of the lunchbox occasion, accounting for 30% of occasions, with consumption among children aged six to 16 up by 11%, accounting for 24% of total lunchbox occasions.

What’s in your lunchbox?

Fiona Bashford and daughter Nia, 4, divulge their lunchbox secrets

What is your favourite sandwich filling?

F: Avocado, mozzarella and tomato

N: Peanut butter

What sort of bread do you like?

F: White bread

N: I don’t mind, but not pitta

What is your favourite drink?

F: Water

N: Apple juice

What is your favourite fruit?

F: Grapes and strawberries

N: Water melon

What is your favourite treat?

F: Chocolate, cake, biscuits…

N: Chocolate

How important is it to you that your lunchbox is healthy?

F: It’s important, but it must contain a treat

If you could pick any foods, what would you have in your lunchbox?

F: A peanut butter sandwich, Frazzles, satsuma and a Club biscuit. Oh, to be 10 again!

N: I’d have a giant lunchbox with everything in it!

Do any of your friends have anything in their lunchboxes that you wish you had in yours?

N: Patrick had a sausage in his, but I tried it and didn’t like it.

Warburtons category strategy controller Martin Baptie says that it’s an opportunity too good to miss. “Children’s lunchboxes for school are one of the fastest growing areas of lunch, just second to adult workplace, providing opportunities for retailers to drive additional sales around the back-to-school period.”

He points out that there is generally an uplift in bread sales during this period. “Bakery continues to have an essential role to play within the lunchbox occasion as sandwiches remain the number one lunchbox item. Sandwiches, rolls, baguettes and wraps feature in eight out of 10 weekday lunches, providing a convenient and versatile option which can be prepared for the whole family at a low cost.”

Roberts Bakery is targeting the children’s market with a lunchbox roll that is smaller. Brand manager Karen Smith says that it’s an obvious move. “Kids are a massive proportion of the lunchtime market, so we looked at targeting that sector with a smaller roll in white and also 50:50. The size of rolls we are capable of making fits perfectly into a child’s lunchbox. This was a gap in our product range and also a gap in the market.”

Smith says that mums are a major driver of the 50:50 market. “Mums buy into the prospect that they are giving their kids something better than white bread. They like 50:50 as it’s something better, healthier and, most importantly, kids will eat it, too.”

Baptie agrees: “Half & Half is the fastest growing sector within bread, as consumers increasingly seek healthier options for themselves and their families which still deliver on taste. As a result, the Half & Half bread segment is showing significant value growth of 10% and holds an 11.6% value share of the wrapped bread market. The segment is now worth £208.9m and we expect its success to continue. Made with 50% white flour and 50% wholemeal, the Warburtons Half & Half range provides a nutritious option with all the taste credentials of white bread and is the ideal choice for those buying for children.”

Baptie says that while sandwich alternatives are the fastest growing sector in bakery, the good old sarnie is still a staple. “Sandwiches are a leading choice for parents, featuring in 84% of children’s lunchboxes, as they provide a versatile lunch option that children accept as a staple, further demonstrating the key role of bakery for the back-to-school season.”

Innocent’s Loyal says that parents treat the new term like new year. “Back to school is a time that kids and adults both like to make a fresh start - new stationery, uniforms, and many see it as a way of kickstarting a healthier routine after the summer. We’ve historically seen our biggest peaks in sales during the August-September back-to-school period. For example, in 2011 we sold 20% of our entire year’s volume in that period.”

Stuart Barker, marketing manager at Pilot Pens, describes it as a make or break period. “The back to school trading period determines whether a writing instrument manufacturer such as Pilot will go on to have a successful year. The months of May and June leading up to the peak back-to-school trading period of July, August and September are always our busiest time of the year.”

According to Bic trade marketing manager stationery, Ulrike Amaya, the back-to-school season accounts for 33% of annual stationery sales. “Back to school is the time that consumers are most motivated to make stationery purchases,” he says. “The growth of back-to-school stationery in 2012 was 6% year on year and we hope this trend will continue.”

Barker adds: “Generally, the type of pens which perform well fall into two categories - the familiar, recognised products which have been bought for many years and sometimes by generations of users and the new and innovative products which allow the user to stand out in the classroom by having the latest ‘must-have’ product. The Pilot FriXion has been a top-performing product for many back-to-school seasons. It is gel pen with ink that can be erased by rubbing the page with the eraser stud until enough heat is generated to make the ink go clear.”

When it comes to selling products aimed at this period, it’s time to get theatrical, say the manufacturers. “What does work is to create an event in-store,” asserts Yazoo’s Cridge. “The supermarkets do back to school very well and make a big effort in it. If smaller retailers did the same things they’d see their rate of sale go even higher. The data we see from grocery is that there is a real spike when linked to these occasions. Food items are the last on the back-to-school shopping list so there is a real opportunity there right before term starts.”

Yazoo has branded trays to place in fridges to add a bit of colour.

What’s in your lunchbox?

Convenience Store deputy editor Robin Mannering and his son Finlay, 6, discuss their lunchbox favourites.

What is you favourite sandwich filling?

R: Ham, avocado and mayo

F: Cheese

What sort of bread do you like?

R: Brown bread, or pitta

F: Brown and white bread

What is your favourite drink?

R: Ribena or water

F: Apple juice (although only allowed water in lunchbox)

What is your favourite fruit?

R: Apples

F: Bananas

What is your favourite treat?

R: Cake

F: Pineapple chunks and flapjacks

How important is it to you that your lunchbox is healthy?

R: Quite important

F: Important for my Mummy and Daddy

If you could pick any foods, what would you have in your lunchbox?

R: Fresh quality bread such as ciabatta mozzarella and tomatoes

F: Pizza!

Do any of your friends have anything in their lunchboxes that you wish you had in yours?

F: Squeezy yogurt, stringy cheese and different crisps!

According to Amaya: “Time-starved parents often feel under extra pressure during the back to school season. A one-stop back-to-school aisle can help ease the pressure for busy parents, and help remind them to pick up items they might have otherwise forgotten.”

Baptie says that there is a real opportunity for retailers to create excitement within the category when it comes to display, from the back-to-school period right throughout the year. “For example, retailers could encourage consumers to share their favourite lunch recipes with other local shoppers by displaying these alongside the bakery fixture printed on glossy card leaflets. This creative technique will also help drive associated purchases.”

Loyal says that retailers need to play on the period being the stepping stone to a new start. “There are opportunities to help consumers who want to use it as a chance for a new start. Tap into the big occasions and visually get shoppers into that mentality. Whether it’s summer picnics, day trips or getting back into the daily school run routine, retailers should look to get shoppers excited about these occasions.”•


Ones to watch

Big cheese

Mondelēz has the nation’s lunchboxes in mind with new Dairylea Mighty Mature and Dairylea Springy Onion spreads. The spreads are made with all natural ingredients and are the first flavours in the Dairylea range. The launches are supported by a £1.6m marketing campaign this year which will include social media and in-store activity.

tel: 08702 400861

Write on

The Pilot Pen Company has launched a range of ballpoint pens in time for the stationery buying peak over the back-to-school trading period. The B2P Soda pens are made from recycled soda bottles and join the B2P range of pens made from recycled water bottles. The B2P Soda pens are available in black, blue, red and green ink colours.

tel: 01628 537100

Slice of the action

Leerdammer is targeting the nation’s lunchboxes with an on-pack promotion giving shoppers the chance to obtain a free sandwich box. The promotion is running on packs of Leerdammer Original and Light Slices from now until the end of August. Consumers can enter codes on the brand’s website to be sent a lunchbox.

tel: 0333 900 2024

Water babies

Saka Natural mineral water has introduced a children’s product to its alkaline-rich range of bottled waters in the form of Saka Kids. The water comes in a 330ml bottle, aimed firmly at the lunchbox market, and has a bespoke label featuring SOL, a butterfly character who will be an integral part of future Saka Kids marketing, says the brand.

tel: 0845 644 0992

Really wild

Pom Bear has widened its menagerie with Pom Bear Zoo. Made from the same recipe as its counterpart, the cheese-flavoured snack contains 100 calories per 19g pack. Support includes sponsorship of Beaver Scouts and Girl Guides, a social media campaign and promotional links with five UK zoos and wildlife parks.

rrp: 45p

tel: 01207 291910