You think you’re doing children a favor by sending them to school with a packed lunch from home, but when it comes down to it, research suggests school may be more on-point when it comes to healthy eating.
According to data from Virginia Tech’s Department of Human Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise, both packed and school lunches sampled usually met nutritional standards; however, those lunches packed at home tended to have more calories, fat and saturated fat than the lunches available at school.
“We assumed there would be differences between school and packed lunch, but not such stark differences, said lead author Alisha R. Farristo Reuters Health. “I also think, for a long time, people have viewed packed lunch as the healthier option, but our results show that’s really not the case.”
Among the findings, Farristo and her team reported that:
- Children with a packed lunch had higher intakes of calories, fat, saturated fat,
vitamin C, and iron while school lunch had higher intakes of protein, calcium, vitamin A, and sodium.
Children with a packed lunch were more likely to have a fruit (61 percent vs 58 percent provided by school lunch) and less likely to have a vegetable (20 percent vs 35 percent provided by school lunch).
For food intake observations of fruit and vegetables, children with packed lunches did not consume 32 percent of their fruit items and 35 percent of vegetable items whereas children with a school lunch wasted 11 percent of fruit items and 51 percent of vegetable items.
“Whats more revealing though is the sources of calories in these meals; bagged-lunches contained more savory snacks and sugar sweetened beverages with fewer fruits and vegetables, Jason Schaub of The University of Arizona in Tucson, who was not part of the new study, told Reuters Health by email. This is significant because children start developing preferences and behaviors towards food at a young age.
Both experts noted that, while the nutritional difference in school lunches versus packed lunches was notable, a more pressing issue might be whether or not children are eating what they are given. Packing a lunch full of vegetables that get tossed on lunch break doesn’t do anyone any good.
“Food-waste in the National School Lunch Program is tremendous, with reports of over 45 percent of all food served going to waste, including over 50 percent of vegetables served, Schaub noted.
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While this may be difficult to combat for school lunches, parents can help make their children’s packed lunches better by including the child’s opinion on what goes in the meal.
How to pack a healthy school lunch
Not every child has the same palate, but the American Heart Association has a long list of healthy options when it comes to school lunches. The organization makes the following suggestions and tips for healthy packed meals:
- Use different breads like 100 percent whole wheat tortilla wraps (choose wraps low in saturated and trans fats) or 100 percent whole wheat pita pockets.
- Besides lettuce, try shredded carrots or avocado slices with a turkey or lean roast beef sandwich.
- Buy store brand blocks of low fat, low sodium cheeses. You save money when you slice it yourself. Or use a cookie cutter to cut into fun shapes.
- Instead of lunch meat, try leftover grilled chicken, lean pork or an egg white salad sandwich.
- Always pack sandwiches with a mini cooler pack to keep them fresh and safe.
- Low sodium tomato, vegetable or bean soups.
- Chili made with lean or extra lean ground meat or turkey.
- Whole wheat spaghetti with low sodium tomato sauce.
- Low sodium baked beans, bean casserole or beans & rice.
- Apple and pear slices to dip into low fat or non-fat plain yogurt mixed with peanut butter.
- Carrot, celery and sweet pepper strips to dip into hummus, fresh salsa or homemade bean dip.
- Whole grain crackers (choose crackers low in sodium, saturated and trans fats) or slices of grilled low sodium tofu (a soybean product) to dunk into low sodium vegetable or tomato soup.
- Unsalted sunflower seeds, crushed whole wheat cereal and sliced banana to mix into low fat vanilla yogurt (no added sugars) to eat with a spoon like a sundae.