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School Lunch or Packed Lunch – Which is Better?

With another school year now underway many parents are back at a difficult daily task: packing lunches for their children. Every morning brings a series of questions: What will kids actually eat? Is it healthy? Would children be better off buying lunch?

The answer to that last question is yes, according to two studies published in peer-reviewed journals. Both studies found that school lunches complying with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrition standards, on average, are lower in calories and fat and contain more fruits and vegetables than lunches students bring from home.

Ellen L. Shanley, dietetics director at the University of Connecticut, says that school lunches tend to be healthier because students are required to choose from several different food groups. Children who bring lunch from home are likely to eat only foods they are already sure that they like.

“Many times school lunch systems get a bad rap,” Shanley says. “All school food service directors who I know make an effort to get students the best food possible.”

After new federal nutrition standards passed in 2010, anecdotal reports from some schools suggested that children were throwing out vegetable and whole grain portions of school lunches. A study that looked at food waste by elementary and middle school students, however, did not support those observations. It found no change in the amount of food waste students produced before and after the new standards were in place.

For parents and students who are going to pack lunch, Shanley recommends, “If you’re going to make a sandwich, choose whole grain bread if possible. Choose turkey instead of bologna, and make sure you include vegetable sticks or a piece of fruit that the child will eat.”

Shanley said, when visiting school cafeterias last year, she was shocked to see how many children were drinking fruit juice or soda.

“Even if you’re going to pack lunch, consider having your child purchase milk at school,” she said. “Calcium is vital for growing children.” She recommends parents send yogurt if children don’t like milk.

Beyond lunch: What teachers and families can do

Shanely also says it’s key that students not only see good food offered in the cafeteria, but also learn about good nutrition in the classroom.

Some schools have gardens on site, but for the many that don’t Shanley recommends field trips to farms when possible. She says seeing where food comes from is most important for urban students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to visit gardens and farm animals.

“Being in touch with our food supply is great, however we do it,” Shanley says.

For parents who want to encourage healthy eating, Shanley says the most powerful action they can take is gathering the family together at meal times.

“Perhaps not every night, but at least a couple of nights per week, sit down at the table and have a conversation,” she says. “Have different foods available that children haven’t tried before. Just ask that they taste new foods, they don’t have to eat it all. It takes trying a new food a number of times before children will develop a taste for it.”

Shanley says, “When parents model healthy eating and healthy eating behavior that really goes a long way.”

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