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Health & Science

Home-Packed Lunches Not As Nutritious As School Lunches, Study Says

Two years ago, a new federal law forced school districts to improve the nutritional content of school lunches. But a Houston nutrition researcher says we also need to pay attention to the lunches children bring from home.


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Karen Cullen, a professor of pediatrics and nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine, was hanging out a few years ago in some Houston-area school cafeterias, doing research on school lunches.

brown bag sack lunch
Image credit: Jeffrey Beall/flickr

But she couldn’t help noticing the variety of things kids brought in lunches from home. So she decided to also do a study about that.

“Basically if we looked at what the children brought — very, very, very few brought any milk,” Cullen said, “Very few children brought vegetables.”

The study appeared Monday in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Cullen and her team examined bag lunches at eight unnamed elementary schools and four middle schools in the Houston region.

Compared to with current National School Lunch Program guidelines, the bag lunches had more sodium than recommended and fewer servings of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and milk.

More than 90 percent of the lunches from home contained dessert, snack chips or sweetened beverages like juice boxes, sodas or sports drinks.

“I think it really points to encouraging families to consider lunches from home as an important teaching moment for parents,” she added.

Cullens said many parents assume it’s cheaper to send a bag lunch than have the child buy one at school. But her study also analyzed cost. She found the bag lunches bought by the elementary school children actually cost more, on average, than the school lunch. (Prices for school lunch did not assume any discount based on the child’s family income).

Ultimately the cost depends on what you’re packing, but processed items like chips, soda or packaged-foods such as Lunchables can drive up the cost in addition to affecting nutrition, she explained.



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