A new study shows that preschoolers and Kindergarteners tend to eat healthier lunches when the foods are picked out by their schools, not their parents.
The study, titled Assessing the Nutritional Quality of Packed Lunches Among Young Children, looked at over 1,300 lunches at 3 Virginia schools, of which 57.2% were school lunches and 42.8% were packed at home. Each researcher was assigned to a group of 10 children whom they observed during lunchtime for 5 consecutive days.
The authors discovered that in general, home lunches contained more fat, carbohydrates, saturated fat and sugar than school lunches. In addition, these lunches had less protein, fiber, vitamin A and calcium.
“I wasn’t expecting there to be such a strong difference between school meals and lunches packed by parents,” said Alisha Farris, one of the study’s authors. “We thought that parents would send lunches that reinforced the sort of healthy habits we hope they are trying to establish at home.”
The findings show that over 60% of parents sent a lunch with at least one dessert, with around 20% packing two or more. Slightly under 60% included snacks like chips, and about 40% packed a sugary drink. School lunches were more likely to offer fruits, vegetables, and milk.
“We found that both packed and school lunches almost entirely met nutrition standards, except school lunches were below energy and iron recommendations, whereas packed lunches exceeded fat and saturated fat recommendations,” says Farris.
The findings were not all good for school lunches, which were found to contain much higher levels of sodium, despite the fact that more processed foods were found in packed lunches. School lunches also had less vitamin C and iron than packed lunches.
Although the study is hardly a national example, the researchers have reason to believe the problem is widespread. A study carried out earlier this year in Massachusetts found similar results. “Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else,” senior author Jeanne Goldberg said in a statement.
The National School Lunch Program guidelines have currently undergone a great overhaul, which set strict guidelines pertaining to fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods, while discouraging the consumption of snacks and sugary beverages. According to the guidelines, schools should offer students the correct portion size of fruits and vegetables, whole-grain foods, and fat-free or low-fat milk.
These guidelines seem to be working. A study conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, MA found that since the release of the guidelines, low-income students have increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Despite all this, 40% of parents still pack lunches for their children, many of which are not as healthy as school lunches.
“Habits develop in early childhood and continue into adolescence and adulthood. Therefore, this is a critical time to promote healthy eating. Determining the many factors which influence the decision to participate in the NSLP or bring a packed lunch from home is vital to addressing the poor quality of packed lunches,” co-author Elena L. Serrano, PhD said.