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Bagged Lunches Fail to meet National Guidelines, Study Reports

Update Date: Nov 25, 2014 11:56 AM EST

Over the past few years, new guidelines have made school lunches healthier. In a new study, researchers compared the nutritional content of bagged lunches to school lunches and discovered that the latter tended to be healthier.

"Parents often pack lunches based on their children's preferences," said the study's senior researcher, Karen Cullen, a professor at Baylor College of Medicine, reported by Philly. "[Whereas] the school lunch guidelines are based on the national dietary recommendations for all Americans."

For this study, the researchers observed the content of bagged lunches brought in by 300 students from 12 elementary and middle schools located in one Houston-area school district. The team recorded what the students ate and what they threw away. Nutritional value was based on the guidelines set by the National Health Lunch Program.

Overall, the bagged lunches tended to be low on fruits, whole grains, vegetables and milk, but high in sodium, averaging around 1,000 to 1,110 milligrams. The limit for sodium in elementary school lunches is 640 mg. Bagged lunches were also more likely to include a dessert, sugary drink or ships. These types of foods were more likely to get eaten whereas roughly 20 to 30 percent of packed vegetables were tossed away.

"There was a lot of waste. Even when parents packed vegetables, a lot of it was thrown away," Cullen said and added according to Reuters, "Parents might need to include their children more in planning their meals and what are healthy choices.

Certainly there are ways to pack a very low cost meal for a child," Cullen said. "It depends on the motivation and the child and parents' needs and what they feel is important for their family."

"For families who don't have the time or resources to do detailed meal planning, the school lunch could be the better option," Dr. Virginia Stallings, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, commented.

The study was published in JAMA Pediatrics. 

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