Children are being sent to school with a packed lunch of a sugary drink, a packet of crisps and a chocolate bar, new research reveals.
A study found that while, overall, the amount of sugar in packed lunches is declining, many contain foods still too high in sugar, salt or fat.
Overall, packed lunches are worse nutritionally than those offered by schools, and vitamin levels are falling, researchers said.
In one case, a child was sent to school with a packed lunch of a pasty, while others only had a sugary drink, crisps and chocolate for their lunch.
Meanwhile, levels of fruit and vegetables have barely changed over the course of a decade, experts found.
The study, published in the journal BMJ Open, included data from 2006 for 1,148 pupils at 76 schools in England.
Of these schools, 18 also took part in a 2016 comparison survey, which included a total of 323 pupils.
Researchers analysed the contents of lunchboxes in both studies, including weighing food and looking at drinks.
The study found that most sandwiches in both surveys were made with white bread (with white wraps becoming increasingly popular), and the most frequent filling was ham, which health experts say is linked to bowel cancer.
More than half of lunch boxes in both surveys contained crisps or other savoury snacks, while around one in three included a chocolate biscuit.
Around four in 10 lunchboxes also contained sugary squash or a carton of fruit drink in 2016, although this was lower than in 2006.
The proportion eating a salami sausage stick or a sausage roll increased slightly in 2016.
Experts also found that three lunches in 2016 contained just a sugary drink, a savoury snack and a chocolate bar.
One contained a pasty.
Packed lunches remain low quality with few meeting standards set for school meals
Mandatory rules governing nutritional quality for school-served meals were introduced in 2006 in England.
These restrict sweets, savoury snacks and sugary drinks, while fruit, vegetables, starch, protein and dairy must be included at each meal.
However, no legislation exists for packed lunches and parents are free to choose what to include in them.
The study, led by the School of Food Science and Nutrition at the University of Leeds, concluded: “Packed lunches remain low quality with few meeting standards set for school meals.
“Although some children’s packed lunches contain healthy foods, packed lunches continue to be dominated by sweet and savoury snack foods and sugary drinks.
“A minority of children eat vegetables or salad and this hasn’t changed in the past 10 years.”
Around half of children are thought to take a packed lunch to school, while the other half have school meals.
The study found that the proportion of lunch boxes containing cheese strips doubled over the decade, while yoghurts took over from fromage frais as the most popular diary dessert.
Between 2006 and 2016, sweets fell by 10%, sweetened drinks reduced by 14% and non- chocolate cakes and biscuits increased by 10%.
Some children had a sandwich filling that was very low in protein, such as jam or marmite.
Very few children had a plant-based sandwich filling such as hummus and vegetable spreads, which made up less than 1% of sandwich fillings.
Only around one in five children in both studies were given a vegetable, the most popular being cucumber, while around half were given fruit, with apples topping the list.
The study also found that essential nutrients fell between 2006 and 2016.
Vitamin C content fell from 58mg to 30mg, and few children’s lunches met the recommendations on fibre, vitamin A, iron or zinc.
Meanwhile, saturated fats, non-milk sugars, and salt in foods also remained above recommended levels.