Parents might not be ready to think about back-to-school yet, but a new study revealed that packed lunches children bring from home are often missing the vegetables, milk and other healthy items recommended by dietary guidelines.
More than 40 percent of U.S. kids bring their own food to school, but there have been very few studies of what kids have in their lunchboxes.
For the new study, they examined the lunchbox contents of 626 third and fourth graders who attended 12 public elementary schools in Eastern Massachusetts.
Most of the foods were pre-packaged salty snack foods and sugary desserts; the researchers saw much less fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy.
About 48 percent of the students in the study brought lunches from home, and 97 percent of those lunches included a snack.
The most common lunch items were sandwiches, which were found in 59 percent of lunches. About 34 percent of lunches contained fruit and 11 percent had vegetables.
Roughly 42 percent of lunches had snack items and 28 percent included dessert.
For beverages, 28 percent of lunches included water, 24 percent included sugar-sweetened drinks and three percent included milk. Another 11 percent of kids planned to buy milk at school.
Less than one-third of lunches met at least 3 of 5 national standards
The study team found that only 27 percent of the lunches met at least three of the five National School Lunch Program standards from the federal government, which include fruit, vegetables, grains, meat or another protein source and milk.
Only four percent of snacks met at least two of the four Child and Adult Food Care Program standards, which are similar to the lunch standards but combine fruit and vegetables into one category.
Some of the findings surprised the study team.
“Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked an entree, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and we saw many children with two or three sugar-sweetened beverages in their lunchboxes,” one of the researchers said.
Other experts not involved with the study note that a lot of kids’ lunches are loaded with carbohydrates.
“So kids get that sugar rush, run out to recess, burn it all off and they’re zombies the rest of the day,” they say.
What makes for a healthy school lunch?
A healthy lunch should have well-balanced energy sources, including a source of carbohydrate, a source of protein and ideally some sort of fruit or vegetable.
Kids need to be fueled with energy that's going to provide a stable source of nutrients and energy to feed their brain throughout the entire school day. Whole-grain bread, crackers and pita or packing a salad made with quinoa or brown rice are good sources of long lasting carbohydrate.
Examples of protein sources include lean chicken breast left over from the night before, kidney beans or refried beans spread on a whole-wheat tortilla. Milk, cheese and yogurt are also high in protein.
Fruits and vegetables are a given, and the best choices are raw and don't have extra sauces or sugars.
Parents should also offer some source of healthy fats, such as a few slices of avocado.
Source: Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, online July 17, 2014.
All research on this web site is the property of Leslie Beck Nutrition Consulting Inc. and is protected by copyright. Keep in mind that research on these matters continues daily and is subject to change. The information presented is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. It is intended to provide ongoing support of your healthy lifestyle practices.