The quality of school lunches has been getting a bad reputation for years, but school lunches have come along way in terms of nutrition content. When comparing school lunches versus packed lunches, consider quality, convenience, control and cost. The cost effectiveness of school lunches is attractive to many families, as is the convenience. Packed lunches give parents more control over what their children eat. Both packed lunches and purchased lunches have their pros and cons.
Nutritional content of school lunches is changing to better meet dietary requirements of children. A rule went into effect in March 2012 requiring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains be available to students, according to the Food and Nutrition Service, a department of the USDA. Amounts of sodium, fat and carbohydrates in school lunches are strictly monitored. These improvements to school meal programs are aimed at enhancing the diet and health of school children and preventing childhood obesity. An issue with examining nutrition content of packed lunches is the expansive variety of foods that are packed for children at home.
Convenience at Lunch
Many parents opt for school lunch for their children because it fits their lifestyle. Working parents in particular find it easier to dole out lunch money than to get up even earlier than usual to pack lunch. KidsHealth.org recommends sitting down with children and their school lunch menu to make sure they steer towards healthy choices, such as fresh fruits and vegetables as opposed to sugary desserts and high fat foods. If parents are concerned their children will avoid healthy options, it may be more convenient to pack their lunch.
According to a study by the School Nutrition Association led by Cara M. Johnson, MS, RD, et al., packed lunches cost more than school lunches. The study cited research done in the Midwest where packed lunches were found to cost on average $3.10 per day, while elementary school lunches cost on average $1.70 per day. This is almost a 50 percent difference in price. The economics of school lunches can certainly be a driving factor in school lunch versus packed lunch.
Control Over Food Choices
A study in the "Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior" by Megumi Murashima, PhD, et al. cites the influence mothers have over their children's eating habits. The study focused on college students, and long-term effects that parent-centered feeding versus child-centered feeding has beyond childhood. The more parents try to force healthy food choices on children, the more children resisted. When parents offer healthy options without force, more children were open to healthy eating. The feeling of control allowed children to feel more open to healthier foods. This translates into healthy eating habits in childhood, which builds a healthy eating foundation throughout life. Whether packing lunch or purchasing school lunch, choosing healthier options is what is important.