To pack a lunch or not to pack a lunch: that is every parent’s question. A study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics may supply some answers to the age-old question of what to do about your children’s lunch.
Baylor College of Medicine’s Karen Weber Cullen, DrPH, RD, and the Houston Department of Health and Human Service’s Michelle Caruso, MPH, RD, examined the nutritional value of lunches brought from home versus school lunches that follow National School Lunch Program (NSLP) guidelines. They found, on average, that lunches brought from home often contained more sodium and fewer servings of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains than NLSP guidelines specify.
And in an editorial that accompanied Drs. Cullen and Weber’s study, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Virginia A. Stallings, MD, says NSLP guidelines — which were passed by Congress in 2011, and emphasize vegetables, fruits, and a variety of healthful foods — have “the potential to fundamentally change the diet quality and food variety of school-aged children.”
A program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National School Lunch Program has been adopted by more than 100,000 schools and as of 2012 provided “nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunches to more than 31 million children each day,” according to the USDA website. Its nutritional requirements include increased portions of grains, vegetables, and fruits, and age-appropriate calorie limits ensure children receive the proper amount of nutrition and don’t overeat.
A Professor of Pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, Dr. Stallings is a leading clinical nutrition and growth specialist. In Dr. Stalling’s JAMA Pediatrics editorial, she points out that lunches brought from home are not addressed by federal guidelines and “the general assumption is that home-prepared lunch will be as healthful as school lunch and possibly better.” However, Drs. Cullen and Weber’s investigation shows that may not be the case.
Focusing on one Houston school district, from October to December 2011, Drs. Cullen and Weber’s team observed 242 elementary students and 95 intermediate students brought their lunch from home. They found, compared to NLSP guidelines, lunches from home “contained a significantly greater amount of sodium,” fewer vegetables, and less liquid milk. In addition, about “90 percent of lunches from home contained desserts, snack chips, and sweetened beverages, which are not permitted in reimbursable school meals,” the researchers note.
For her part, Dr. Stallings says future studies “are needed to encourage families who choose to provide lunch from home to prepare meals that are similar to the NLSP diet patterns and the health promotion goals. Little contemporary information is available about families and students who choose not to participate in the school lunch and may result in less healthful lunch alternatives or skipping lunch.”
To learn more about healthy eating and nutrition for children, see Children’s Hospital’s page on school-aged child nutrition.