When Good Parents Pack Bad Lunches: Study Finds Kids' Food Falls Short

Busted. So busted.

I've been meaning to write about this new Tufts study on the nutritional sins of the lunches kids bring to school. (No, it's not just the cafeterias with their "vegetable" ketchup.)

But the spurts of guilt kept deterring me — the guilt of a mother who has been known to fill a lunchbox with Sun chips, alphabet cookies, challah and nothing else. Not even a pretense of a vitamin.

So I'm thrilled that the Boston Globe's Beth Teitell has taken it on: At Lunch, Home-Packed May Not Mean Healthy.

Over 40 percent of U.S. schoolchildren bring their lunches to school on a given day.

Bottom line: It looks like the lunches that most kids bring to school are nutritionally pathetic. When researchers examined — and documented in photos — the lunches of more than 600 Massachusetts third- and fourth-graders in six public school districts, the meals almost all flunked. From the press release:

[Lead author Jeanne] Goldberg and colleagues compared students’ lunch and snack items to federal National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and Child and Adult Food Care Program (CAFCP) standards, respectively. They found that only 27% of the lunches met at least three of the five NSLP standards, and only 4% of snacks met at least two of the four CAFCP standards, both of which emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low- or non-fat dairy.

The findings highlight the challenges associated with packing healthful items to send to school. “When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” Goldberg said.

“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else,” Goldberg said. “Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.”

“The few existing studies on packed lunches report that children who bring their lunch tend to consume fewer fruits and vegetables, less fiber and more total calories than those who participate in the National School Lunch Program,” Goldberg said. “Given that over 40% of U.S. schoolchildren bring their lunches to school on a given day, it’s important to consider how nutrition experts and policymakers could help parents meet the challenges of cost, convenience, and child preference and add nutrition to the equation.”

The Globe story adds some real-life perspective:

Fiona Healy, a math coach in Cambridge, says she can make a respectable lunch at the beginning of the week, “but come Wednesday, things start to fall apart.”

Her 8-year-old daughter, Brenna Walsh, will eat fresh deli turkey, most of the time, but that requires a frequency of grocery shopping that the working mother cannot maintain, and her daughter does not like much else that’s healthy. Many days, Brenna eats the pretzels and cookies her mom packs as a treat and ignores the meal.

“The strawberries come back in their neat little container,” Healy said. When she asks what happened, their conversation will be familiar to many parents.

Brenna: “I didn’t have time.”

Mom: “But you had time to eat that bag of pretzels and cookies.”

My experience exactly. I've been told, "There's not enough time to peel an orange."

The Globe story also includes interesting insights from sociologist Dina Rose, the author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating.” She says parents' motivations for packing junk food include: that they don't want their kids to be hungry; or they want to avoid conflict; or they are too busy; or fall into the "at least" strategy:

“Parents make the ‘at least’ compromise,” she said. “ ‘At least’ chocolate milk has calcium. ‘At least’ chicken nuggets have protein. If you think of the cumulative effect of the ‘at least’ mindset, we’re teaching our kids the exact opposite habits we want them to have. We’re dumbing down their diets, and more importantly, we’re pushing their taste buds towards junk and away from healthy foods.”

In my own defense of the many carbs-only lunches I've packed for a child who'll eat nothing else at school, here's some of my thought process:

Anything else I pack will just go uneaten. School is hard, not just academically but in its constant social pressure. I want lunch to be a time when my kids can unwind a bit, and eat favorite foods that sit well afterward.

And perhaps most of all, unlike the people who have to plan cafeteria menus, I have the whole picture of my children's "food day," and I know that if lunch was junky, breakfast and dinner have to help make up for it.

Or am I just rationalizing? Readers, I'd love to hear your own bad-lunch justifications...

Headshot of Carey Goldberg

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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