With all the buzz recently about childhood obesity and school lunch programs, many parents have decided to send their kids with lunch from home. However, many moms don't have the time or resources to make lunch for their kids each day. Is it really a bad idea to feed kids school lunch? National school lunch standards may surprise you.
School Lunch Menu Standards
In recent years, school lunches have had a major overhaul. Stories about greasy fried foods, sodas, and empty calories being served at schools are largely exaggerated. It's important to understand that food at school comes from two sources: The federally-funded USDA National School Lunch Program and foods from everywhere else including vending machines, a la carte items, and school parties. Meals purchased through the school lunch program are required to meet strict dietary guidelines regarding amounts of fat, sugar, salt, and calories. These meals are also required to provide essential amounts of important nutrients like protein, fiber, calcium, vitamins, and minerals.
While school lunch menus may include popular kids foods like pizza, fries and chicken nuggets, it's important to understand that even these foods must meet strict federal requirements. Often, these foods are prepared in healthier ways including baking fries, using low-fat cheese on pizza and breading chicken nuggets with whole grains.
School Lunch for Low-Income Kids
For kids that come from homes where keeping food on the table is a challenge can benefit even more from school lunch than their peers. Free school lunch and reduced price school lunch ensure that even the poorest of children have access to at least one healthy, nutritionally balanced meal each day. In many places, school breakfast is also available at little to no cost. To find out about free school lunch eligibility in your school district, contact your child's teacher to get more information and see if you qualify. In many cases, even a full-price school lunch is cheaper for families than bringing sack lunch from home.
Choosing the Healthiest Option: School Lunch vs. Sack Lunch
Sack lunches can be a genuinely better choice for some kids. Exceptionally picky eaters or kids with severe allergies are especially good candidates for sack lunches. Unfortunately, most of us don't prepare sack lunches that are as nutritious as they should be.
An Eastern Michigan University study from 2001 found that, compared to school lunch, sack lunches offered on average three times fewer dairy servings, only half as much fruit, and a whopping seven times fewer vegetables. Also, sack lunches included three times as many empty calorie snack items like fruit snacks, candy, and cookies. Overall, school lunches were found to be higher in nutrition and lower in fat, sugar, salt and empty calories than lunches brought from home.
So, does school lunch deserve its bad reputation? Not really. In fact, for many people, school lunch standards ensure that federally funded meals are a healthier alternative for kids than bringing lunch from home. With low prices and guaranteed nutrition, school lunch is hard to beat.
The real problem plaguing schools is all the other food that makes it onto campus via vending machines and ala carte lunch lines. Fats, salt, sugar and empty calories abound in these foods, and it's often impossible to keep them out of schools. As a parent, your best defense is to teach your child how to make healthy choices and respect his body. Ask him what he ate at school every day and talk honestly about his choices. It may take a while, but eventually, he will realize that your "meddling" is out of love.