WHAT THEY’RE SAYING
Children who purchase lunch at school are potentially receiving better nutrition during that meal when compared to children who bring a lunch from home.
WHAT WE KNOW
The National School Lunch Program underwent changes in 2012 to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.1 This change increased the amount of fruit, vegetables, whole-grains, and low-fat dairy products available to school-age children. Sodium and trans-fat levels were reduced, and the calorie content of lunch was made more appropriate for children. About 60% of children receive lunch from school, leaving 40% to bring lunch from home. How do school lunches compare to lunches packed at home now that the school lunch program has been made healthier? Current research has found school lunches are typically a healthier option than lunches brought from home.2
HOW WE KNOW THIS
A recent study compared school meals and packed lunches for pre-K and kindergarten students across three (3) schools.2 The study investigated the nutritional quality of packed lunches compared to what the school served for lunch over a five-day period since implementing the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program standards. The authors found packed lunches to contain significantly higher amounts of calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C, and iron. School lunches contained higher amounts of protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A, and calcium. These variations are thought to be from packed lunches containing sugary beverages, desserts, and high-fat snack foods such as crackers and chips. In this study, school lunches contained an average of 512 calories and packed lunches had nearly 608. What remains unclear is how much of either lunch children consumed. However, based on nutrient content alone, school lunches may be more beneficial for children’s health than packed lunches.
The National School Lunch Program offers the appropriate balance of protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetables and milk. Parents expect their children learn reading, writing, and arithmetic while in school. Similarly, school meals teach a child what a real meal should include.
Whether you decide to send your child with a lunch or let them purchase lunch at school, encourage them to make healthy choices. Talk to your children about the importance of eating from all of the food groups and encourage them to eat a rainbow of colors for optimal nutrition.
5 Tips for Choosing School Lunch
- Find out what’s being served. Most schools post school menus somewhere on the school website or have printed copies in the main office, and some even have smartphone apps for the menu.
- Review the school menus with your children and discuss the foods that are offered. Do you eat some of the foods at home, are there any foods offered that your child hasn’t tried before? Trying new foods a few times at home can make eating them at school easier and less intimidating.
- Make a game out of it by challenging your kids to try a different color fruit or vegetable each day, or keeping track of when they ate their vegetables by placing a sticker on the calendar. Give out stickers for trying new foods too!
- Talk to your kids about what they ate at school. Many schools allow students to decline some of the menu items, so it’s important to follow up and ask your kids what they ate. This also provides an opportunity to reinforce the importance of eating a balanced meal.
- Find out if your school has a “take your parent to lunch” day. It’s a great way to see firsthand what’s being served and encourage healthy eating at school.
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