Are School Lunches Better than Your Home-Packed Ones?

Posted by on Jan 18, 2015 in Blog | No Comments

Happy New Year to all Diverse Little Eater readers! We wish you a healthy start to 2015!

Many of us pack lunches for our children every day, but a surprising article in the New York Times recently pointed out that school lunches are often healthier than home-packed lunches.  See article HERE.

This article may raise the eyebrows of parents who are packing lunches as a way to improve their children’s diets. Turns out, many parents pack lunches to ensure that their kids will eat at lunchtime, adding not-so-healthy items that they know their kids will eat.

I was surprised to learn that more than half of public school children in the US eat school-made lunches, and for 60 percent of those children, more than half of their daily calories are provided by the school. A large number of our country’s children are getting a bulk of their nutritional needs from their schools! The article raises an important question for those of us packing lunches for our children – are your homemade lunches really healthier than those your kids could be buying at school? Research shows that this is not the case, at least while the current nutritional requirements for school lunches in the US are maintained (which may not be long according to THIS CBS news update on the topic).

What is going on here? Why is it so hard for parents and guardians to feed their children healthy, nourishing, good foods?

From my point of view as the regular lunch packer in our household, there are several factors that can affect the healthiness of a packed lunch – ease of packing the lunch, the “eatable” rating of said lunch in the eyes of one’s child, and the attitude/knowledge of the lunch packer on what is truly healthy.

Ease of packing. Certainly it is easier to pack a lunch full of items that are already prepared or pre-packaged for you. You just throw them into the lunch box, and voila! Lunch is packed. Yes, this may be easy, but pre-packaged foods (even the ones marketed as healthy… even ones that state they are equivalent to a serving of fruit or vegetable), are never as nutritionally complete or as healthy as real, unprocessed and unrefined foods.

“Eatability” factor. According to the NY Times article, parents of picky eaters often pack foods that they know their children like to ensure that the kids will eat something for lunch. This is a difficult issue much too long for this post. However, my best advice here is to start early in introducing a wide variety of whole, real foods to your child. Introduce them with enthusiasm or stories that will make the food fun and exciting, and try to educate your young children on the importance of eating healthfully. Of course it is normal to load the lunchbox with foods that you know your child will eat, and this is fine, but try to do it with whole, real foods that were not processed or packaged in a factory. Work with your child to figure out which fruits, sandwich fillings, hot meals, and veggies they would eat if you put them in their lunches. A sweet treat is fine here and there, but first try presenting it as an after school snack that he or she can have if all of the good foods in their lunch are eaten first. My son frequently eats the remainder of his fruit and vegetables just after school before he gets a snack that he considers to be a treat, like my after school energy balls or a serving of nuts and dark chocolate covered goji berries.

The lunch packer. To be a healthy lunch packer, you need to have some knowledge of which foods are healthy, and a pretty strict sense of where you are comfortable drawing the line on what can or cannot go into your child’s lunchbox. There is so much good advice on how to determine what is healthy. One quick book that every healthy lunch packer should read is “Food Rules” by Michael Pollan (the book can be found here in pdf!: http://www.healthmantra.com/food_guide.pdf). But the simplest rule to begin with is that lunchbox items must be real, whole, unprocessed, un-packaged foods. It takes a little more time to wash and cut fruits and vegetables, or to assemble a sandwich in the morning or the evening before, but it does get easier after you establish a system. The health benefits for your child are worth the effort!

Since I started packing lunches for my son a few years ago, I have been following my own food rules:

  • Avoid pre-packaged foods. Only pack real, whole foods in the lunch box!
  • Have a conversation with your child about why a healthy lunch is important. Then work together to determine which healthy foods you could put in the lunchbox that he or she would actually eat. You can give an added incentive to eat these foods by promising a special (healthy) after school treat if they eat their packed lunch.
  • Educate yourself on what is truly healthy. Read labels and familiarize yourself with common food label ingredients. If you do not know the ingredient, then it is likely a food that has been processed in some way.
  • Finally, keep in mind the current rules (below) for school lunch programs in the US. If you can match the requirements or do even better, then you’re in good shape.

Current school lunch requirements in the US based on the NY Times article above:

  • ½ – 1 cup of fruits
  • ¾ – 1 cup of vegetables (a variety must be served throughout the week, not only potatoes)
  • 1 cup of 1% or fat-free milk (only fat-free milk if sweetened)
  • 1-2 ounces of grains (half must be whole grains. The maximum amount of grains that can be served in a week is 9-12 ounces)
  • 1-2 ounces of meat or a meat alternative (the maximum amount of meat/meat alternative that can be served in a week is 10-12 ounces)

Children must select at least 3 of the above options each day including at least 1 fruit or vegetable.

My son’s lunches usually include water, a sandwich that has on it a veggie plus a protein (e.g. meat from the previous night’s dinner), a serving of fruit, and a serving of veggie. Sometimes I give him a thermos container with left-overs from the evening before, but since lunchtime is very short at his school, he finds it easier to eat sandwiches quickly.

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