Winter 2015

Home-Packed Lunches Fall Short

New study finds those brown bags are usually strong on snacks and weak on nutrition 

By Jacqueline Mitchell

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Illustration: Ryan Snook

Parents, administrators and policymakers are squaring off on federal guidelines requiring schools to serve healthier, more affordable and ecologically sustainable meals. No matter how they pan out, these guidelines won’t apply to a sizable portion of the classroom. More than 40 percent of kids bring their lunch on any given day, according to data from the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

So what’s in those brown paper bags? Is the food brought from home better than what the lunch lady serves?

That’s what Jeanne Goldberg, Ph.D., G59, N86, a professor at the Friedman School, and her colleagues wanted to find out. In their recent study, published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the researchers peered inside the lunchboxes of third- and fourth-graders in 12 Massachusetts schools and assessed how the contents stacked up against the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards. These federal guidelines promote diets that include foods from five basic categories: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean proteins and dairy.

“At the extreme, there were kids whose lunches contained four or five packages of snack foods with nothing at the core.” —Jeanne Goldberg

By those standards, most food brought from home failed to meet the mark. The majority of kids had a sandwich, a bottle of water and some packaged snack food in their bags—not too bad, right? But just 11 percent of lunches contained vegetables, and only 17 percent contained a dairy item. A mere 3 percent of kids brought milk along as a beverage (another 11 percent planned to buy their milk at school). Nearly a quarter of the lunches included a sugar-sweetened drink.

All in all, just over a quarter of the home-packed lunches met three of five NSLP standards, and only 4 percent met two of four CAFCP guidelines. “Parents serve a lot of packaged foods,” says Goldberg, director of the Friedman School’s Nutrition Communication Program. “At the extreme, there were kids whose lunches contained four or five packages of snack foods with nothing at the core.”

Goldberg points out that the study was not done to make parents feel bad. Rather, the idea is seen as a first step toward improving the quality of home-packed lunches. In that spirit, she has a few suggestions. It’s best to provide kids with an insulated container and ice pack, she says, to enhance the food’s appeal as well as its safety. Also, exposing kids to new foods at home and then recruiting kids to help prepare their own lunches can be fun.

Finally, take the long view when it comes to selecting healthy foods for lunch. “Not everything will work the first time,” says Goldberg. “But change over time is quite possible.”

 

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