A new study reveals that lunches packed at home are generally not as nutritious as school lunches. The nutritional value of school lunches over five days was analyzed by the researchers comparing more than 750 school meals with more than 560 packed meals given to pre-K and kindergarten students in three schools.
“We found that packed lunches were of less nutritional quality than school lunches,” said lead researcher Alisha Farris, a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech University. The packed lunches had more fat, and included more desserts and sugary drinks than the school lunches did, the researchers found.
As a whole, the packed lunches overall had more calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, vitamin C and iron than school lunches. In addition, meals brought from home generally had less protein, sodium, fiber, vitamin A and calcium than school lunches, according to the study. “There was a spectrum,” Farris said. “There were some really healthy packed lunches. But overall, they were pretty unhealthy.”
Issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour published the study in the month of November-December.
The researchers used the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program Standards as a guide with a view to analyze the nutritional content of the lunches.
The researchers found that the school lunches had about 512 calories on average and the packed meals about 608. Moreover, the protein content of the school meals too was about 26 grams compared to 18 in packed lunches. In addition the packed lunches were less likely than school lunches to have fruits, vegetables, sugar-free juice and milk was found by the researchers. She also found that packed lunches had more snacks such as chips and crackers.
The sodium was higher in school lunches than packed was found by Farris which was probably due to the entree items found in school lunches. Packed lunches had about 880 mg while school lunches had about 1,000 milligrams (mg). The researchers noted that the school lunch standards will phase in new sodium standards in the 2014-15.
“While it is surprising to see the higher sodium content in the school lunch, the nutritional pluses of the school lunch — more fiber, vitamin A and less sugar and saturated fat — make the [nutritional] value aspect of school lunch better,” Diekman said.
Diekman has served on her school district’s wellness committee and has visited schools to observe lunch programs. Involving the kids in the planning helps improve children’s food choices, she said.
For parents who want to pack lunches for their kids, Farris has these tips. “Include a fruit, a vegetable, protein and dairy,” she said. “Pack a sandwich. Put in an apple and carrot sticks.” For dairy, she said, choose what your child likes, such as yogurt, milk or cheese, and put in a cold pack to keep it chilled.