Nutrition Smackdown: School Lunch vs. Packed Lunch

Food fight: School lunches are giving brown-bag meals a run for their nutritional money. (DebbiSmirnoff/E+/Getty Images, DNY59/E+/Getty Images)

November 12, 2014- By Laura Tedesco – yahoo-

Remember when school lunches consisted of frozen pizza and French fries? When it was proposed that ketchup be counted as a vegetable? Fortunately, those days are becoming a distant memory, thanks, in large part, to the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), which sets strict nutritional guidelines for meals in school cafeterias. For the 2012-2013 school year, the NSLP updated its standards, and now requires schools to offer fruits and vegetables every day, shift from refined to whole-grain carbs, serve fat-free or low-fat milk, reduce sodium content, eliminate trans fat, and limit calories to meet specific energy requirements by age group.

“[These changes] are required if schools want to get reimbursement for meals — and they all want to get reimbursement for meals,” said Alisha Farris, a registered dietitian in the Virginia Tech department of human nutrition, foods, and exercise. “About 95 percent of schools are meeting the new standards.”

This may explain why, despite the less-than-stellar reputation of school food, Farris and other Virginia Tech researchers found that cafeteria lunches are actually healthier than the meals parents are packing. To determine this, the scientists analyzed the contents of 1,314 student lunches at three elementary schools in rural Virginia. “There have been studies [like this before], but they were prior to the new guidelines,” she said.

So how did the nutritional showdown pan out? After crunching the numbers, the researchers found that the packed lunches contained more calories, carbs, fat, and sugar and less protein and fiber than the school lunches.

The foods that parents tossed into their little learners’ brown bags explain these nutritional differences: Packed lunches were less likely to contain fruits and vegetables and more likely to include chips and sugary drinks, compared to cafeteria meals. Which foods cropped up again and again? Grab-and-go items, such as mini bags of chips, Capri Sun drink pouches, and Lunchables. And while none of the school cafeterias offered dessert, 61 percent of the brown-bag meals included a sweet treat.

Although packed lunches may vary by region and socioeconomic status, Farris thinks her study’s findings are on par with national trends. “The results speak to a wider problem of our children [consuming] more sugar-sweetened beverages and desserts,” she told Yahoo Health. These dietary shifts are likely fueled by one thing: convenience. “You really have to go the extra mile to chop fruits and vegetables — it just takes more time,” she said. “Convenience foods are very handy, but for the most part, they aren’t healthy options.”

And as any parent can attest, it’s often a struggle to get your child to eat an apple instead of a cookie. “Parents might cave in to what their kids want,” said Janice Newell Bissex, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Meal Makeover Moms. “If kids see that their friends have a Lunchable and it looks good, they’ll beg their parents. And the parents think, ‘Well, it’s convenient, and they like it. So I’ll go for it.’”

Although Farris originally assumed parents opted to pack lunches due to nutritional concerns, “our results really suggest that’s not the case,” she said. “We really want to figure out what’s motivating them: Is it food preferences of their child? Do they just want to get some calories in — and that’s more important than the quality of the food? We don’t know.”

What is clear: There’s definitely room for improvement. The good news is that upping the nutritional quality of kids’ lunches doesn’t have to be difficult or time-consuming. You can start with simple swaps — say, sending a piece of whole fruit instead of a prepackaged dessert or replacing sugary drinks with water, said Farris. “That would make a huge difference to the nutritional quality of the lunch,” she said. Or follow this roadmap to a well-balanced lunch to give your kids’ afternoon meal a total overhaul:

Essential #1: A source of protein

If you opt for the traditional lunchtime source of protein — sliced turkey breast — try serving it Lunchables style with whole-grain crackers and other bite-size nibbles. “Some children like that style of eating — just finger foods,” said Bissex. “They might be intimidated by a big sandwich, especially the younger kids.” Other creative ways to pack in protein: hummus, tuna (canned with a little mayo), or even leftover grilled chicken from last night’s dinner. “Thread fruit and little blocks of chicken and cheese on a kabob,” suggested Bissex.

The payoff: Protein is what keeps your kid full throughout the day, and it also helps prevent blood-sugar spikes and crashes, said Bissex. That equals better concentration.

Essential #2: A fruit

The easiest route is, of course, to toss a whole piece of fruit into your little one’s lunchbox. However, if your child won’t eat it, there’s no use packing it, said Bissex. Instead, try sliced-up strawberries, or use a melon baller to create small scoops of fruit. (Hint: Pack a toothpick — your kid will think it’s fun to eat fruit that way!) Dried fruit is also an option, as long as you pick the no-sugar-added kind, said Elisa Zied, a registered dietitian and co-author of Feed Your Family Right! Even pre-packaged fruit cups are acceptable if you pick the ones soaked in juice or water, not syrup, said Bissex.

The payoff: Not only does fruit help quiet your child’s sweet tooth, but the fresh stuff is also full of nutrients like vitamin C, vitamin A, and filling fiber, as well as water to help keep him or her hydrated, said Zied.

Essential #3: A vegetable

This may be the least convenient food group to fulfill, but with the a little prep work, you can avoid feeling rushed in the A.M. The night before, or even on Sunday evenings every week, cut up a bunch of carrots or celery, and create single portions in zip-top bags, said Bissex.

If your kiddie won’t eat plain veggies, it’s OK to include a little ranch dressing (try making your own with low-fat yogurt!) or even hummus for dipping — and don’t hesitate to experiment: “Hold taste tests at home to figure out what foods they want and like,” suggested Farris. “Get them involved in the process as much as possible.” If all else fails, you can sneak a layer of fresh spinach onto your child’s sandwich.

The payoff: Vegetables are loaded with essential nutrients — without adding a crazy number of calories to your child’s meal.

Essential #4: Whole grains

It’s not just what you put between the bread that matters — the foundation of your child’s sandwich is also critical. Whenever possible, opt for whole-grain — not white — bread or tortillas, said Bissex. The same goes for crackers if you’re sending a smorgasbord-style lunch. Triscuits are an easy option.

The payoff: Whole grains contain complex carbs and fiber to fill your little one’s belly, plus iron, magnesium, and B vitamins, which help turn food into energy, said Zied.

Essential #5: Low-fat or nonfat dairy

In the Virginia Tech study, parents did consistently pack yogurt. The question is: Did they pack the good stuff — or the sugar-laden junk? At the supermarket, check the labels and make sure you choose one of the lower-sugar options, advised Farris. “Yogurt has lactose in it, so it’s going to have some sugar,” she said. “But if sugar is one of the first ingredients on the list, then you know it has a lot of added sugar.” As an alternative, give your child the cash to buy a little carton of milk from the cafeteria.

The payoff: Dairy is packed with calcium and often has vitamin D added. Plus, “it provides protein that fills kids up and keeps them satisfied,” Zied said.

Essential #6: A source of healthy fats

This shouldn’t be the star of your child’s meal — just a small handful of nuts (if they’re allowed at his or her school) or even a few slices of avocado on a sandwich will do the trick, said Bissex. You can even turn nuts into a treat: Mix them with dried fruit and chocolate chips for a tasty trail mix, she suggested.

The payoff: Even a small amount of fat will help your child absorb certain nutrients in fruits and veggies, Bissex said.

Essential #7: Water

Even if your child buys milk from the cafeteria, you should always pack a bottle of water, too. You can even add a splash of 100 percent fruit juice or fresh berries or cucumber slices to flavor it, said Zied.

The payoff: One word: hydration!

Optional Item: Dessert

If you want to send a little something special, skip the prepackaged sweets, and make your own at home instead. “Then you have a lot more control over how healthy they are,” Bissex pointed out. “I always try to weave in a little bit of good nutrition to cookies — a little flaxseed, a little wheat germ.” You could also go the trail-mix route (see above), or even just break off a square of chocolate to sate your child’s sweet tooth.

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