Home-Packed Lunches Often Fall Short of Nutrition Guidelines, Study Says

Lunches lack adequate fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and dairy products.

It’s already that time: Back-to-school commercials have taken over the airwaves. In addition to the pencils and notebooks, you may want to add something else to that shopping list—healthy snacks. According to new research from Tufts University and Tufts University School of Medicine, only 27 percent of brown-bagged school lunches meet federal nutrition guidelines.

“When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children,” the study’s senior author Jeanne Goldberg said in a report. “Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition.”

Published online in a recent issue of the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the study assessed one day’s worth of kids’ school lunches and snacks. According to the report:

The researchers used digital photography to document the lunches and snacks of more than 600 Massachusetts third and fourth graders in 12 schools in six public school districts. 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.

Researchers also found that kids’ lunches contained sugary drinks instead of water, the beverage recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“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 in the report. “Given that over 40 percent 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.”