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Brownbagging it not always the healthy choice for kids’ school lunches

Nutritious meal inside? Maybe, maybe not. Lunchbox image via

Ravenous students, busy parents, nutrition professionals and school officials all have their own ideas about what belongs on the school lunch table. Plenty of criticism centers on the unhealthiness of notorious items like corn dogs, nachos, and fried foods that many schools dish up. But our research shows that what gets packed in a lunchbox from home can be just as unhealthy as what’s served on a tray at the cafeteria.

School lunches are improving

The 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act issued updated nutrition standards for the US National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The revamped standards require schools to:

  • increase the availability of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and fat-free and low-fat milk
  • reduce the level of sodium, saturated fat and trans fat
  • meet the nutrition needs of school children within their calorie requirements

Over 90% of schools reported that they successfully met the revamped standards for the 2013-2014 school year, up from just 14% in 2009-2010. But even if schools are serving beautifully balanced, healthy meals, it’s an exercise in futility if kids aren’t eating them.

Some families are unhappy with the menu and taste changes of school meals and are considering joining the 40% of children who already bring a packed lunch from home everyday.

Lunchtime in the schoolyard could leave something to be desired, nutritionally. Kids image via

What’s in those lunchboxes

When we took at look at what came to school in all those brown bags, we found that packed lunches – which of course aren’t required to meet any nutrition standards – are generally less healthy than lunches provided at school.

We rifled through 1,300 school-provided and parent-packed lunches of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten children in three Virginia schools. We compared them for nutrients and also for food items present. Packed lunches provided more calories, carbohydrates, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C, and iron while providing less protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A and calcium when compared to National School Lunch Program meals. Lunches from home also contained more desserts (61% vs 0%), snack items such as chips and crackers (57% vs 5%), and sugar-sweetened beverages (40% vs 0%), while providing fewer fruits (54% vs 67%), vegetables (17% vs 61%), and milk (20% vs 96%) when compared to school lunches.

Another recent study found similar results. The researchers used digital photography to document the lunches and snacks of more than 600 Massachusetts third and fourth graders in 12 public schools. They compared packed lunches to National School Lunch Program standards and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards. They found that only 27% of the packed lunches met at least three of the five NSLP standards, and only 4% of snacks met at least two of the four CAFCP standards.

We’re now interested in determining what motivates parents to pack a lunch for their child and what barriers there may be to participating in the National School Lunch Program. Why don’t families choose the provided meals despite being low-cost and even free for a large proportion of children? Researchers and health professionals need to consider strategies which will help parents meet the challenges of food and taste preferences, convenience, time, cost and nutrition. Since 40% of children are bringing a packed lunch from home to school every day, it is an emerging issue that cannot be ignored.

How to get kids eating healthier foods

Schools can encourage students to participate in the National School Lunch Program by offering farm-to-school and school gardening options, taste tests of menu items, and involvement of parents and children in the development of new menu items.

Parents can make changes to improve the nutrition of their child’s packed lunch by setting small goals such as:

  • include a fresh fruit and vegetable every day
  • send water or milk for drinking instead of a sugar-sweetened drink
  • replace dessert with a healthier item such as fruit
It’s so nutritious! Girl image via

Studies have shown that involving children in the decision-making around what to eat increases their likelihood to eat those foods. Parents can encourage their kids to eat healthy foods by involving them in packing decisions: giving children a choice about which fruits and vegetable to include, allowing them to select foods from the farmers market or grocery store, and modeling healthy eating at home.

Parents can also… be patient. It takes time for children to accept new foods – research shows up to 15 times! – but exposing children to healthy foods is critical for acceptance. Be patient, offer healthy foods, and be content with small bites. They will be forming healthy habits that last a lifetime!

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