With celebrity chefs Alice Waters and Jamie Oliver joining First Lady Michelle Obama’s rallying cry against the perils of school lunches, failing to send your child to school with a packed lunch seems to border on negligence. But doctors warn that unless parents really know what they’re doing, kids are better off eating cafeteria food.
Dr. Robert Murray, director of the Center for Healthy Weight and Nutrition at the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, points out that school lunches have proved more nutritious to children than packed lunches in no less than three separate studies performed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Parents tend to pack sugary juice boxes, carbohydrate- and fat-laden snacks, and portion sizes that are out of whack with the child’s age. “They’ll throw in a twin-pack of Ding Dings, a fruit drink, and a bologna sandwich, and that’s far worse for a kid than a school meal,” Murray says.
While school lunches certainly aren’t perfect, schools accomplish a lot within a tight budget of just $2 per child per day. The U.S. Department of Agriculture stipulates that school lunches contain no more than 30 percent fat, that calories have to be appropriate to the child’s age, and that the food contains a certain amount of protein as well as vitamins A and C. Kids might be eating pizza for lunch, Murray says, “but the fact is that the pizza on the school menu has a whole-wheat crust, low-fat cheese and turkey pepperoni.”
However, for parents who are willing to put in the time to learn what children need to eat to stay healthy, preparing a packed lunch means parents know (mostly) what their kids are eating, says Dr. Marcy Schneider, an MD in Greenwich, Connecticut., and a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ committee on nutrition.
Parents can ask their physician for advice on proper nutrition, but Schneider says it’s probably easier just to research the Internet. A favorite of hers is Eatright.org. Murray adds that another good place to start is Mypyramid.gov, where parents can find out about appropriate foods and portion sizes.
When you’re preparing your children’s lunches, “representation from all food groups would be nice,” Schneider says. “If it’s a sandwich, make it with whole-grain bread and include a protein, such as a slice of turkey, and something that could be construed as a vegetable with maybe a small bag of carrots and some hummus. Include a piece of fruit and a bottle of water or low-fat milk, not a drink with a ton of sugar in it.”
Many kids trade lunch items, but parents can instill a sense of what’s good to eat at evening meals by what they stock in the refrigerator and by how many times per week they eat fast food. If parents set a good example, “even if kids deviate from it — and parents should expect to see some junk in their children’s diet — they should understand the goals,” Schneider says. Ultimately, “kids trust their parents to guide them.”
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