As parents strive to follow school rules and give kids a balanced diet, no added sugar drinks and sandwich alternatives are making gains

The news that 19 million lunchboxes disappeared from the UK last autumn thanks to the introduction of free school meals for four- to seven-year olds (Kantar data) sounds catastrophic for the ‘lunchbox occasion’, but that’s not the case. And that’s because it’s not just young kids that like a packed lunch. Their versatility - the fact that those packing the lunch can pick the items that the consumer will like - plays a big part in their popularity, plus there’s the money saved by making sarnies at home.

And saving money is important to many people packing up lunches.

Neil McRobbie, who has three Centra stores in Northern Ireland, says: “People are conscious of what they’re spending. We sell ham and ready sliced cheese for sandwiches in all three stores and shoppers tend to go for whatever is on promotion.

“We’ve also noticed that mums are buying more multipack crisps, especially when they’re on for £1.”

Despite the fact that 4.3 million under sevens are now eligible for free school meals, they’re not all taking them. According to research carried out by Future Thinking last autumn, 68% of parents of children in schools that were offering free school meals were switching from packed lunches to free meals. Some 16% who had previously paid for them said they would be getting them for free, while 8% said they intended to switch in the near future, and another 8% said they had no intention of switching.

Future Thinking managing director Claudia Strauss says this might be because children are picky about their food and might not find something they like on the school menu, whereas with a packed lunch their mums know exactly what they like.

But what children like and what their schools allow might not be the same thing. Only recently an Essex primary school confiscated a Peperami from a child’s lunchbox and reprimanded another parent for sending their child to school with a scotch egg. Meanwhile, a primary school in Manchester confiscated a cereal bar and a packet of 100% fruit chews, deeming them unhealthy, but at the same time had a canteen menu that included chocolate fudge cake.

Neil says: “A couple of the schools round here don’t allow chocolate and certain energy drinks, so we are selling more flavoured water.”

Fruity flavours

Flavoured water, particularly low-or no-sugar varieties, is now a firm favourite in lunchboxes.

CBL Drinks sales and marketing director Maurice Newton confirms this, saying that the company’s Perfectly Clear is selling well. “Brands such as Perfectly Clear aim to make the concept of water, an inherently ordinary drink in its unflavoured natural form, a lot more interesting and appealing to children. Perfectly Clear has now positioned itself as a market leader in the ‘water plus’ category, with its 250ml lunchbox format containing a third of the recommended daily amount of key vitamins. Couple this with its use of natural flavours and zero-sugar content, and it is clear to see why it is a popular choice for health-conscious parents.”

Flavours in the 250ml packs include apple & blackcurrant and strawberry.

Also available is Fruit Squeeze, in a 300ml sports cap bottle format. “Fruit Squeeze aims to be a cheaper alternative to other market leaders and is made from British spring water blended with real fruit juice and no added sugar. These products provide an excellent portion size for lunchboxes,” says Newton.

Meanwhile, Sunpride - a big name juice brand in the foodservice sector - introduced a 150ml size in schools and colleges last autumn, which is now being made available to retailers for the healthy lunchbox market. The 150ml juices, which all meet schools’ lunchbox criteria, will be available in orange, apple and pineapple flavours. They will be sold in a multipack format with an rrp of between £1.40-£1.50 for a five-pack.

Refresco Gerber commercial director James Logan says there has been no detrimental impact on sales of 500ml and 200ml sales of Just Juice, Sunpride, Um Bongo and Sunny D since the introduction of free school meals.

“Drinks that have nutritional benefits still have a role to play, especially in lunchboxes for older children,” he says.

“Juice is seen as an easy and enjoyable way to consume one of the five a day. Although the juices and juice drinks category is in decline, sales of the pure juice Just Juice 200ml, which was relaunched at the end of last year with a 49p pricemarked pack, are doing well and showing that consumers are choosing natural pure juice products with no added sugar for lunchboxes. And the 49p pricing puts it on a par with supermarket pricing.”

Another value brand that often features in lunchboxes is Jucee squash. “The children’s lunchbox market is a key area of growth for Jucee as parents look for options that are great value for money,” explains Graham Breed, convenience channel marketing director at brand owner Princes.

“We’ve invested significantly in the brand to ensure we’re one of the first to market with a 100% no-added sugar squash line-up. So far, our shift to no added sugar has gone down well with consumers. Whenever we have removed a recipe containing sugar, its replacement has performed at an even higher level in blind panel tests.”

The firm is now moving its entire squash range to 100% no-added sugar. “We are also continuing the process of upgrading our recipes. After improving the orange and summer fruits squashes and lime cordial earlier this year, two further recipes have been upgraded - orange, lemon & pineapple and blackcurrant squash. All these recipes have achieved best in class in blind panel tests.”

Steve Charlton at Budgens Harleston in Norfolk says he’s aware that there are restrictions on what can go into the lunchboxes: “There are limitations on snacks and confectionery so there is definitely an emphasis on a more healthy solution such as fruit and breakfast/cereal bars.”

Halo Foods claims that cereal bars boasting ‘no added sugar’ claims are particularly in demand. “Parents now look for ‘no added sugar’ or ‘wholegrain’ labels to ensure their child is snacking on healthier snacks,” says brand marketing manager for cereal bars Jodie Cavaye. “Harvest Cheweee bars have a real advantage due to their lower sugar levels against their competitive set.

“The range offers a good balance of indulgent permissibility to parents, giving children a cereal bar with a good portion of slow-release energy ingredients, together with treat ingredients for a flavour burst. At less than 100kcals per bar, Harvest Cheweee is a healthier alternative to chocolate or biscuits.”

Last year the firm introduced a Strawberry Crush variant, featuring freeze-dried strawberries.

Meanwhile, Harry Goraya, from Rosherville Post Office in Gravesend, Kent, is keen to encourage children to eat more fruit, so much so that he’s giving it away for free. Last September he introduced Fruit and Veg Week, which was such a success that it’s being run again this year in the back-to-school period.

“The first week back after the summer holidays we give away a free piece of fruit to children who go to the local school. We send a letter to the head explaining that each child can have one piece of fruit free - either an apple, banana, pear or orange. They get to choose. It was quite well received last year, which is why we are repeating it again this year.”

Harry says it costs him about £200 and apart from giving him that ‘nice warm feeling’ that he’s giving something back, he’s keen to get the message across that healthier options to other snacks are not bad. “People don’t always like the fact that fruit has to be weighed then paid for; they can’t be bothered with that so we have made it easier,” he explains.

He says feedback has been brilliant: “Everyone likes something for nothing and parents are delighted it’s getting children to eat things they might not have eaten before.”

One category that may not be such an obvious link with lunchboxes is cereals. But Georgia Brown, trade marketing manager at Cereal Partners, believes cereals have a part to play in children’s diets, not only at breakfast, but at lunchtimes in lunchboxes. “NHS Choices recommends that low-fat snacks are provided in packed lunches. In particular, children like food that can be eaten with their fingers and breakfast cereal proves to be an excellent finger food while being naturally low in fat.

“Parents can measure out a serving using scales or tablespoons each morning and put in a handy container for a healthier snack option later that day.”

As for the sales opportunities the lunchbox market still presents the convenience sector, Susan Nash, trade communications manager at Mondelez International, believes it’s a major one, particularly during the back-to-school period.

“Retailers should focus on meeting the needs of busy consumers during this time of year, which can typically be quite stressful,” she says. “By creating a dedicated ‘lunchbox’ bay, filled with best-selling brands and handy formats, retailers can facilitate a simple shopping experience and grow their sales.”

Sandwich alternatives

Sandwiches are a key item in most lunchboxes but, according to Anchor Cheddar, the once popular cheese sandwich has fallen out of favour. In a survey carried out for the brand earlier this year, it was found that 55% of people questioned had not had a cheese sandwich in the previous week. To put this right, the brand then embarked on a tour giving out 565,000 cheese sandwiches to members of the public across the UK.

But it’s not just cheese that has fallen out of favour; sliced bread has, too. Bread leaders Warburtons, Hovis and Kingsmill have lost more than £120m combined in bread sales in the past year (IRI 52 week ending 28 March 2015) as people ditch standard sliced in search of healthier options.

“Research has found that consumers increasingly want foods that deliver health benefits for themselves and their family, and foods that are perceived as more natural and less processed are high on their list,” says marketing manager for premium Jill McCall.

The firm has responded by cementing its market lead in ‘bread with bits’ with a campaign to promote its seeded and granary ranges. “It is important for us to communicate the quality and goodness of the ingredients that are used, such as our USP of ‘no artificial preservatives’.”

Demand for healthier options has also driven growth in the sandwich alternatives market. Says Steve: “There is certainly an upward trend in the sandwich thins market and our suppliers are heavily promoting these lines at present. We are probably selling double the volume of thins that we were a year ago.”

Martin Garlick, category director at Allied Bakeries, says Kingsmill is making a major contribution to the category with its Sandwich Thins. “With more than 40% of sales being incremental to the category, Kingsmill is both bringing in new users and encouraging existing shoppers to buy more.

“Kingsmill Sandwich Thins has accounted for 53% of the category growth seen since launch six months ago (Nielsen), making it the fourth largest segment within sandwich alternatives and meal accompaniments. And Kingsmill’s latest 12-week share is almost 20% of the market, and growing quickly - making Kingsmill the fastest-growing brand in the Thins market.”

Meanwhile, the launch of Warburtons Shapes means the ‘sandwich alternatives’ market just became a bit more fun. These are soft and pre-sliced available in two novelty shapes: vans and cats. Packs of six are priced at £1.28. They’re available now in Asda and Waitrose stores, but will roll out to other stores, too.

Darren Littler, innovation director at Warburtons, says the new Shapes will bring excitement to the bakery category, attracting new shoppers to the sector and helping to further drive category growth.

After-school snacks

Nineteen million packed lunches might have been lost but, as with most things in life, when one door closes another opens. So, while research reveals that the largest decline in lunchbox occasions has been for children aged between five and nine, it also shows that there has been a 13% increase in consumption of afternoon snacks (Kantar).

As such, Strauss at Future Thinking says c-store retailers should be making more of the after-school snacking occasion. “Kids are hungry after a day at school. And many will be going onto after-school activities. One child might have a swimming lesson and their brother or sister might be sitting around waiting their turn. That’s when there’s a need for on-the-go snacks for children.

“Retailers need to draw attention to after-school snacks and pre-swimming snacks - in that period between 3pm and 6pm when kids are ravenous and are often not at home.

“This is a real opportunity for the convenience sector to do better than the grocery mults. And if retailers are really clever they could offer meal deals of a drink and a snack. These would be great for mums, especially when there’s more than one child.”

She continues: “Portion size of lunchbox items is quite small as they’re a constituent part of a whole lunch, but for after-school snacking you’re talking about a main snack so kids will want something a bit more substantial.”

She says it’s good to see that more healthier options are available for kids, and points to the recently launched Hula Hoops Puft - a lighter version of traditional Hula Hoops - as a good example. “And it’s great that convenience stores are able to offer chilled snacks - things like Cheestrings, which are a great on-the-go snack.”

Clare Bocking, sales director for convenience at Kerry Foods, also points to a change in the nation’s eating habits which retailers can take advantage of. “Meal consumption patterns have rapidly changed over the past decade with many people moving from three main meals a day to five-to-seven smaller meals.

“This highlights a strong opportunity for lunchbox items to be consumed at different times of the day, increasing usage occasions and creating significant opportunities for the likes of cheese and meats to become viable options for snacks, lunchboxes and sharing.”

Portable snacks are popular at Nayan Ali’s Best One in Dunstable. He reports that sales of Dunkers and Lunchables are good. “They’re promoted a lot. Recently we had Lunchables at £1, when they’re normally £1.60, and often have Dunkers, pricemarked at 65p, on offer at two for £1. It’s good for shoppers but I sometimes think the manufacturers overdo it - they should do an offer once then leave it for a while. These lines are always on promotion so customers get used to them and once they go back to their rrp, they think they’re being ripped off. They don’t understand that it was a promotion.”

After-school club

Food to go is also popular with the after-school crowd. Costcutter Eniskillen in Northern Ireland does a roaring summer trade in soft ice cream thanks to its self-serve machines from the Malibu Corporation.

Neil also gets lots of mums with kids in on their home from school. “There’s a lot of pester power with kids screaming for things like Slush Puppies.”

Slush Puppies are popular items at Harry’s store, too. “We have two machines dispensing five flavours and they are very popular after school, but it is seasonal. In the winter the kids will swap a Slush Puppie for a hot chocolate.”

Steve also has plenty of mums and kids post-3pm. “Generally, they are buying impulse soft drinks, crisps and confectionery as well as hot food such as sausages and sausage rolls - all the things that are bad for them!”

And its not just food that can catch their eye, c-stores can also take advantage of mums and school kids in store to sell a few pencil cases and stationery sets.

Neil sees only a limited demand for pens and pencils. “We sell a wee bit, but the multiples and the discount stores have killed off the stationery trade for us.”

However, Harry says stationery is still a winner for him in the back-to-school period.

“Admittedly, it’s not a massive earner, but it’s definitely worth doing as it supplements other items. We don’t go for expensive lines; everything we have on sale is either £1 or £1.50. We stock the items kids definitely need at school such as pencils and geometry sets. A lot of kids lose stuff over the summer so they’ll come in to replace an item and at £1 or so, ours are all affordable.”

Steve has 1m of space devoted to stationery all year round in his store, but adds a free-standing display unit in the back-to-school period and says cut-price lines on that always sell well.

There’s no doubt that September is a busy time for parents, rushing around to ensure their ‘little darlings’ are properly kitted out for the new school year, and stocking the right products can mean a busy time for c-stores, too. Whether it’s healthy lunchbox options, filling after-school snacks, or even a distress purchase set square - be sure to do your homework and find out what local families need from you in the back to school period.


Filling a gap in the market

A lot of research went into the development of Kerry Foods’ Yollies yogurt lolly brand. Clare Bocking, sales director for convenience at Kerry Foods, explains: “We spoke to 2,800 mums and kids, which revealed the need to develop a product that met mums’ need for goodness and kids’ need for fun.”

She also points out that kids’ yogurts are bought only every four weeks and yogurt features in only three lunchboxes in 10, which presents a huge sales opportunity.

The chilled lollies, made from extra thick yogurt, come in strawberry, raspberry and apricot flavours and their ‘no-mess’ format means that as well as being ideal for lunchboxes, they’re great for out-of-home and after-school eating.

Yollies is currently being supported by a £5m marketing campaign including cinema and TV ads.


In Brief

Kerry Foods signs wildlife celebrity

Kerry Foods’ Brave Bones Club has enlisted the support of TV celebrity and wildlife enthusiast Steve Backshall to recruit new fans. Backshall is heading up the ‘Year of Adventure’ campaign, encouraging children to get outside and involved with adventures alongside their parents.

Vimto on tour

Vimto’s Seriously Mixed Up Fruit campaign will hit the Midlands this summer with a van distribution and sales drive, plus region-wide advertising. Sponsorship of the Fusion Festival, taking place in Birmingham in August, aims to boost brand awareness via sampling to more than 40,000 teens.

Cow collectibles

Dairylea is currently being backed by an on-pack promotion which gives consumers the chance to win Dairylea Moo-ing Racers. There are 100 chances to win one of these racing cows every day until the end of October.

Simply ideal

AG Barr says its Simply Fruity children’s juice drink is ideal for the lunchbox occasion. It comes in convenient 330ml bottles with sports caps in four flavours: orange, blackcurrant & apple, strawberry and apple varieties. It is growing at 15% year on year (Nielsen data).



Catering for teenagers

Hot dogs are the hot choice for students

Many schools allow their older pupils to leave the premises at lunchtimes, which means local stores are a magnet for them.

One such shop which sees an influx of young adults at midday is Oak Tree Stores (a One Stop franchise) in Bitterne Park, Southampton. Manager Jacqui le Carpentier says: “We get Years 10 and 11 coming in from the local secondary school. They like to buy the Rollover hot dogs; we sell about 15 per lunchtime in term time. We used to sell 20 or so, but that was when Year Nines were allowed out at lunchtimes, too.

“I think the hot dogs are popular because of their price; we sell them at £1.69 which means they are competitive with the Country Choice slices we sell at £1.79.

“We also sell the Rollover burger. We used to offer them all week long, but now we do a ‘Burger Wednesday’ and that’s working really well. We sell a plain burger for £1.69 and a cheeseburger for £1.89.”

Rollover sales and marketing director Tony Owen confirms the brand’s popularity with school kids: “Our latest qualitative research conducted by Qual Street highlighted that school kids know our brand and have tried it at cinemas, or at days out at theme parks. They really love Rollover hot dogs because they are proper hot dogs; filling, tasty and fantastic value with retailers usually offering them at a very affordable price or including them in meal deal options, which makes it a compelling offer for school kids who are buying their lunch or for an after-school snack.”

The brand is likely to resonate even more with teens thanks to its latest promotion which ties in with the new Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation film, which is currently showing in cinemas.

Special promotional trays direct consumers to Rollover’s Facebook page where they can win prizes linked to the movie.


Milky ways

Flavoured milk is a big hit with kids and adults. Dairy Crest says Frijj continues to drive a strong rate of sale, making it a must-stock for convenience retailers when considering their back-to-school and snacking offering. Indeed, Kantar Worldpanel data shows that the brand has brought more new shoppers into the flavoured milk category over the past year than any other brand or own brand due, in part, to recent launches.

The five core flavours within the chilled range are full on fudge brownie, choc-a-chocolate, seriously strawberry, mucho cookie dough and burst of banana, all in 471ml bottles, but 250ml bottles of choc-a-chocolate and seriously strawberry are also available.

Frijj 40% Less Sugar was launched earlier this year, in 471ml sized bottles in the two best selling flavours: choc-a-chocolate and seriously strawberry.

According to Dairy Crest, 43% of all Frijj sales are consumed on the go with the brand significantly over-trading versus total on-the-go soft drinks at breakfast, mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

Obviously, Frijj is not the only flavoured milk out there. There’s a strong case for stocking Yazoo as well. Although it is best drunk chilled, it does not require chilling and so can be stored with other ambient lines.

The brand is available in new bottles that are described as better for the environment. They are made of a PET plastic that includes 20% recycled material, rather than the HDPE plastic used in the current bottles. Plus they eliminate the need for an aluminium foil lid.

Brand owner Friesland Campina says the move to new packaging will save two tonnes of waste per year. A new screw-top gives bottles a leak-proof seal.

The new bottles are also easier to recycle, as the body no longer needs separating from the outer sleeve. Instead, the whole package can be popped into the recycling bin.

The changeover from the existing HDPE bottles started on the 300ml size and will spread to other Yazoo sizes over the course of the rest of the year.


The official line

Inspire your customers with ideas for making healthier lunches

If you want to find out what the official advice on healthy children’s lunchboxes is and pass it on to your customers, then look no further than the NHS Livewell website (

It says a balanced packed lunch should contain these food groups: starchy foods (bread, rice, potatoes and pasta and so on); protein foods including meat, fish, eggs and beans; a dairy item such as cheese or a yogurt; vegetables 
or salad; and a portion 
of fruit.

To ensure lunches don’t get boring it advises swapping sandwiches for bagels, pitta bread, wraps and baguettes - using brown, wholemeal or seeded bread rather than white.

The website says that children often like food that they can eat with their fingers, so suggests including chopped carrots or peppers, with hummus or cottage cheese as a dip, in lunchboxes.

It points out that it may take a while for children to get used to having a healthier lunchbox, but advises parents to persevere for the sake of their children’s health.

The site also directs parents to to pick up more ideas for healthy lunches.


In Brief

Cheese selection

Dairy Crest has launched Cathedral City Selections Mini Bag, rrp £1. Created specifically for the convenience sector, the bags include five 12g individually-wrapped portions of Cheddar in mature, extra mature and vintage variants. The firm says they will be listed in Nisa, Buyco/P&H, Costcutter and McColl’s.

Clover comes top of the class

Earlier this year, Clover was awarded top place by consumer watchdog Which? magazine in its dairy spread taste test. A panel of 120 consumers tasted 10 different dairy spreads at the Which? sensory testing lab and rated each on its aroma, appearance, texture and flavour. Clover came out best, earning the highest rating for flavour.

Vimto updates message on packs

Vimto has relaunched its Vimto Minis 250ml still RTD with a new pack design to reinforce to mums that the drink meets the needs of kids on the go. The new livery aims to increase standout on shelf and communicates its no-added sugar credentials. Vimto Minis are available as singles with a 59p pricemarked pack for the convenience channel. A summer digital advertising campaign across key lifestyle websites such as Hello!, Heat and Cosmopolitan will help to drive awareness of the new format.

View from the classroom

Food in schools

“All schools pretty much work towards having Healthy Schools status and, as part of that, you must have rules governing what goes in your lunchbox, what gets eaten at snack time.

“For a snack at break time children must have something healthy such as fruit, cheese or yogurt. That said, it’s amazing how many parents think sticky fruit Winders count as fruit.

“Most kids’ lunchboxes these days are okay. At lunchtime we keep an eye on their lunchboxes, but we aren’t too militant. However, if we notice that the same child is repeatedly bringing an unhealthy lunch in, we will mention it to the parents.

“There are a lot of initiatives in schools that encourage parents to provide a healthy lunch. Parents are invited into school to work with staff to develop lunchbox meal plans. Recently, we had a Food Revolution Day where we watched a video of Jamie Oliver making a super-healthy sandwich and then we made our own.”

Mrs C, a primary school teacher from Maidstone

In Brief

Jucee takes primetime ad slot

Jucee’s sponsorship on Nickelodeon has moved to a primetime slot. Brand owner Princes says so far this has increased brand awareness by 17.8%. In addition, more media activity is planned, including TV advertising across a number of children’s channels.

Capri-Sun Fruit Crush hits 
the mark

Capri-Sun’s schools -compliant Fruit Crush contains 75% fruit juice with 25% spring water. Counting as one of your five a day, it comes in apple & blackcurrant, apple & pear and tropical varieties in 200ml pouches in multipacks of five.

Heinz Beanz cuts sugar content

Heinz recently launched 50% Less Sugar Beanz, also with 25% less salt. The product meets the Department of Health Responsibility Deal targets for salt. A print campaign supporting the launch will begin next month, positioning the new range as a tasty and nutritious evening meal solution as kids go back to school.

Hovis aims for top seed

Hovis is embarking on a campaign to reinforce the premium taste and nutritional benefits of its seeded and granary ranges. This will include a packaging update and coupon offering shoppers 30p off any Hovis seeded or granary loaf in August.