What’s for Lunch?

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

Food service workers prepare meals for the school lunch program. Photo by Ken Hammond, USDA Agricultural Research Service Image Library, Image 03CN0713-4.

What’s on your child’s lunch tray? It depends on whether your child packs lunch or buys the full meal deal available under the National School Lunch Program.

Either way, the meal probably meets nutrition standards “almost entirely,” says Alisha Farris, lead author of a new study at Virginia Tech. The report appears in the November/December issue of the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, published by Elsevier.

Lunches brought from home were more likely to exceed recommendations for fat and saturated fat. They were also more likely to have dessert items, savory snacks, and sugar-sweetened drinks.

The researchers examined both types of school lunches for kids in preschool and kindergarten after implementation of the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program standards. The results are mostly consistent with earlier studies that compared school lunch program and packed lunches for different grade levels.

“This is consistent with what we have seen,” says Beth Spinks, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the Berea City School District in Ohio.

Yet while packed lunches on average came close to meeting nutrition standards, there was still a lot of variation in what was in those lunches. At one point Spinks asked a grad student to evaluate packed lunches brought by fifth graders in that school district.

“They were all over the place in nutrients,” Spinks says. Indeed, some lunches packed by students themselves “just had chips and cookies.”

To the extent school lunches fell short in the Virginia Tech study, it was generally on the energy and iron recommendations. When it comes to calories, kids don’t have to take all the items offered by school meal plans, and researchers were focusing on what kids actually had on their trays.

Just having food on their trays isn’t enough, though. Kids actually have to eat the food to get the nutritional value, and the Virginia Tech team recognized this as a limitation in their study. Thus, one recommendation it makes for future studies is to gather food waste data and compare consumption for packed and school lunches.

Spinks agrees this would be worthwhile.

“When we watch the garbage cans, we see a lot of food from both the packed and purchased lunches being thrown away,” she says. “We need to figure out why. Planning a great lunch does nothing if the child does not eat it.”

Meanwhile, the study could be helpful to promote school meals and give parents suggestions for packing lunches, she notes.

And nutrition isn’t the only thing parents should focus on if they pack lunches for themselves or children. Food safety matters too, stresses Spinks.

Now there’s another topic for research….




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