What’s Healthier, School Lunch or Packed Lunch?



If you’ve decided to send your kids to school with a packed lunch because you think it’s healthier than school lunches, you might want to take a closer look at what you’re putting in it.

According to the Journal of Child Nutrition, 60 percent of packed school lunches failed to meet nutrition standards set by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). Children’s packed lunches scored negatively on amounts of dessert and snack food calories, as well as saturated fats and sodium. Only 27 percent of packed lunches met three or more NLSP standards for protein, grains, fruit, milk and vegetables.

In the past, school lunches often exceeded levels of fat and sodium recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  But today, due to improved requirements, many school programs receive high scores in protein, fats, calcium, iron, sodium and vitamins.

The Hazards of Convenience

Convenience might be superseding healthy choices in your packed lunches. According to the journal study, the culprits are prepackaged desserts, snack chips and SSBs (sugar-sweetened beverages).  Who doesn’t love a sweet treat—and kids are no exception.  But even if the packaged dessert has as few as 100 calories, that’s a quarter of a 400-calorie lunch! Snack chips can appear healthy if they are baked and made with whole grains. But beware, they often have a higher sodium content to make up for the loss of flavor from frying.  

Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB’s) claim they are healthy because they contain added vitamins. But interestingly, the study found packed lunches containing SSBs were significantly more likely to have low amounts of proteins, fiber and calcium, along with excessive amounts of sugar.

Send only 100 percent fruit juice, but be aware of the sugar content. Although fruit juice may seem more “natural” than drinks with added high-fructose corn syrup, raw fruit is even better because it delivers a lower concentration of sugar along with fiber that makes you feel full longer.

Healthy Packed Lunch Strategy

Packed lunches still can be healthier than school lunches, even after accounting for parents’ limited time to prepare them. One strategy is to shift your focus away from trying to limit fats, sugars and sodium in your kids’ lunches. Instead, focus on what to include. Try including a variety of proteins, whole grains and fruits and vegetables.

Your first move can be to use a lunch bag that includes a freezer pack.  Or include a frozen food that will thaw by lunchtime, such as make-ahead meat or peanut butter sandwiches. (Place fresh lettuce and pickles in separate bags). You also can send frozen burritos or pizza.

Lean protein sources for packed lunches can include deli meats, peanut butter, chicken, eggs and beans.

Low-fat dairy can come from yogurt, cottage cheese and other cheeses.

Whole grains can be incorporated into lunches through breads, cereals and high-fiber tortillas.

Cooked, canned, dried or raw fruits and vegetables are easy to pack.

Swap out high-calorie snacks and desserts for hummus with vegetables, nuts, seeds, popcorn, dried fruits and whole fruits with yoghurt.

Your child’s healthiest school lunch option still can be her home-packed lunch bag.

 

Karen Kight has packed hundreds of school lunches for her three kids and, regrettably, has sometimes sacrificed healthy food for more convenient, less ‘natural’ options.

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