Study Says School Lunches More Healthy Than Packed Lunches

school lunches

School lunches have been a contentious topic for a few years now. As part of her Let’s Move! initiative, first lady Michelle Obama has played a large part in rallying support for changes that could decrease childhood obesity. Part of this initiative included the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, which set new nutrition standards for school lunches and allocated funds for the implementation of those changes. However, not everybody is happy with this. According to the Washington Post, the backlash has ranged from students in Georgia being upset over the removal of fried chicken from their lunch menu to lobbyists and food companies pushing for legislation that would allow school districts to opt out of the new nutrition standards. New information from Virginia Tech researchers might help defend the Obama administration’s actions regarding school lunches, however.

Study Examined Pre-K and Kindergarten Lunches

The new study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, examined 1,314 different lunches brought by students to three elementary schools in rural Virginia. Most of the lunches – 57.2 percent – were provided by the school, while the remaining 42.8 percent were brought from home. Researchers used an observational checklist to record all of the food and drinks in the packed lunches over a period of five days. After all the data was collected, it was found that the packed lunches were significantly higher in saturated fat, sugar and carbohydrates. The school lunches were also found to be much higher in protein, fiber, vitamin A and calcium. The news wasn’t all bad though, as the packed lunches were found to be higher in vitamin C and iron, while the school lunches contained more sodium.

Researchers attribute much of the differences to the Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs, which aim to increase children’s exposure to vegetables and fruits. Comparatively, the packed lunches were found to contain many more snack items, sugary beverages and dessert items. While it seems as though school lunches definitely contain healthier items, it’s important to note that researchers did not measure actual consumption, meaning that these study results don’t necessarily reflect the exact nutrition levels the kids actually received.

Packing a Healthy Lunch for Kids

Packing healthy lunches for kids doesn’t have to be difficult. Simply cutting down on desserts and snack items such as potato chips and cookies can play a huge part in reducing the saturated fat and sugar that kids consume. Instead, try using carrots, celery, trail mix, berries, grapes, snap peas or apple sauce. Slices of apple, orange, pear or peach can also serve as a healthy side that kids will enjoy. Also, don’t forget about sodium. If you must use a processed lunch meat, go for the one that has the least sodium content. As an alternative to sandwiches, you could try making larger amounts of home-cooked dinner so that kids could take the leftovers to school. You could even try planning home dinners around the school lunch schedule so that your kids have a lunch that is similar to their peers but more healthy. Simply talking to your kids about what they’d like in their lunch can provide some great ideas for things that are nutritious yet kid-friendly.

School Lunches: The Bottom Line

The eating habits that people develop during childhood affect their food choices throughout life. If you simply don’t feel comfortable or knowledgable enough to pack a healthy lunch, this study suggests that getting school lunches may be the best option. However, with a little time and effort, a packed lunch can be even healthier than school lunches that abide by the current standards.

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