Dec. 2, 2014—There’s a food fight going on in America’s school cafeterias—between school-prepared lunches and lunches packed at home. And according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, the school lunches are winning—at least in rural Virginia—by offering more nutritious choices that are less likely to contribute to childhood obesity.
According to background information in the study, about 40 percent of America’s schoolchildren eat lunches brought from home. So this study is a heads-up for parents to pack their child’s lunch with a more nutritious punch.
About the study
For 5 consecutive school days, researchers compared packed lunches brought from home to lunches available through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) at 3 elementary schools in rural Virginia. They focused solely on kindergarten and prekindergarten kids because at that age, food preferences are still developing and can still be influenced.
During the study week, researchers evaluated 562 packed lunches and 752 school lunches. The packed lunches were significantly higher in:
Vitamin C (probably due to the prevalence of fortified fruit drinks)
Compared to school lunches, the packed lunches were significantly lower in calcium, fiber, protein, sodium and vitamin A. Packed lunches were also less likely to contain fruit, vegetables, milk, and juice with no added sugar. They were also more apt to include items that can contribute to higher body mass and, ultimately, childhood obesity: sugar-sweetened beverages, savory snacks (like chips) and desserts.
Overall, the school lunches were more nutritious than the packed lunches. One key reason: NSLP schools are required to offer foods that, over the course of any given week, meet nutrition standards based on the Dietary Guidelines for Americans from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This means that these menus must stick to specific calorie limits and include fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
The researchers noted that although the school lunches had more sodium, they met current federal standards. Acceptable sodium content is being lowered gradually to allow food manufacturers time to reduce sodium and give students time to adjust to lower-sodium entrées.
Limitations of the study
Researchers did not measure actual consumption of food. Also, because this was a small study of young students in predominantly Caucasian rural counties, the results might not apply to older, more ethnically diverse or urban student populations.
For more information, listen to the-editor-in chief of the journal interview an author of the study.
The take-home message
Eating habits develop at a young age and can set the stage for a lifetime of good health—or for serious health problems, like obesity. Packing nutritious school lunches is one way parents can influence kids’ food choices and help them maintain a healthy weight.
To boost the nutritional value of a packed lunch, try including:
Sandwiches made with whole-wheat bread
Fresh veggies (green peppers, snap peas, baby carrots) with hummus
Fresh or canned fruit instead of sugary desserts
It’s also wise to skip savory snacks and swap sugar-sweetened drinks for a thermos of water or a carton of milk purchased at school.
Get more ideas for healthy eating at www.choosemyplate.gov.