Are home-packed lunches nutritionally inferior to in-school lunches?

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Health and nutrition studies on packed school lunches mostly focus on elementary, preschool, or high school intake. Some studies have examined the nutritional content of home-packed school lunches. However, many researchers have solely analyzed the caloric and nutritional content of hot meals that are provided in schools.

Study: Packed School Lunch Food Consumption: A Childhood Plate Waste Nutrient Analysis. Image Credit: oliveromg/Shutterstock
Study: Packed School Lunch Food Consumption: A Childhood Plate Waste Nutrient Analysis. Image Credit: oliveromg/Shutterstock

The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) mostly researches school lunches as well as delivers nutritious food at lower or no cost to families that are in need. More than 90 percent of schools have reported accepting this program which provides about 30 million meals daily in the United States.

Background

Home-packed lunches at U.S. schools comprise about 40 percent of school meals. Their packed content was reported to have a higher caloric value and a lesser nutritional value than in-school lunches. All NSLP-participating schools must make their lunch offerings healthy and meet minimum nutrition/caloric standards. Since schools meet such parameters, parent-packed lunches have been considered inferior on many levels.

The selection and preparation of home meals are complex since there are no guiding regulations on what to pack. Additionally, several factors impact the packing of a child’s lunch. These include geographic region, parent/child communication, economic status of the school, family, or region, and school administrative policies. Moreover, since parent-packed lunches are according to the student’s likes, greater consumption occurs compared to school lunches.

Assessment of dietary intake among children is difficult since information on school food intake is obtained from self-reported questionnaires subjected to recall errors. Plate waste measurement has been reported to be the most accurate method of nutrient intake since it provides the most specific information independent of student memory or observation.

The responsibility for the content of home-packed lunch is on the parent or adult. The time and effort given for food preparation are most often limited in working families, which leads to prepackaged and processed food items being the easy choice. Although parents are concerned about nutrition, they do not need to abide by the school or federal guidelines. The behavior of some parents concerning food preparation was observed to be unconcerned, while some pressured children to eat healthily at school and home.

Intrusive school policy and poor food quality have been reported to cause plate waste for in-school and home-packed lunches. Inadequate communications among administrators, health educators, service staff, and teachers have been reported to reduce healthy eating behavior for school children. In contrast, a longer duration of lunchtime has been indicated to increase their food consumption. Additionally, rules regarding having lunch before recess (exercise), not sharing unopen food, not having enough time to eat,  and not talking among peers were reported to increase food waste.

The study

A new study in Nutrients aimed to analyze the consumption of home-packed lunches among 3rd-grade elementary children.

The study involved the recruitment of a group of 3rd-grade children. Collection of lunches took place while children entered the classroom for over a week. The meals were labeled with specific identification stickers and weighed in grams following which they were returned to the classroom before lunch.

The children were observed during lunch to prevent sharing of food. They were told to carry all the leftovers to the nearby research table. The leftovers were then weighed as per the identification numbers. Calorie-free liquids and water was categorized separately. Purchased prepackaged food from the school cafeteria was also included in the study. Finally, individual food pre/post weights were converted into nutrient intake information using a Nutritionist Pro (Axxya systems) dietary analysis module software.

Study findings

The results indicated that a mean of 23.6 meals were analyzed each day.  In total, 60.9 percent of the students were female and 39.1 percent were male between 8 and 9 years of age. The average packed meal was reported to arrive at 639.6 kcal which was reduced by 32.7 percent when consumed. Children were reported to obtain 27.8 percent of their daily energy requirement with lunch. Water was observed to be packed with 44 percent of the lunches and 92 percent of that water was observed to be consumed with lunch. Sugar-sweetened beverages were reported in 61 percent of the lunches.

No significant percentage difference was observed for proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates between what was packed and what was eaten. The percentage of sodium and cholesterol was observed to be reduced significantly through packed lunch consumption. Children were reported to eat an average of 16.8 percent of their daily fiber recommendation at lunch. A mean of 13.2 percent daily total simple sugar calories was reported among all the students.

Therefore, the current study demonstrated that children who ate packed school lunches fell within calorie recommendations and a healthy macronutrient distribution. They were also observed to be within the cholesterol and sodium range but high in simple sugars. Further research is required on the American and global nutritional quality of home-packed school foods across various ages to improve childhood nutrition.

Limitations

The study had certain limitations. First, the sample size was small, which makes the results not generalizable to the global or United States population. Second, the study might comprise weight recording errors or missed plate waste. Third, the complete handling of the waste collection by each student was not observed. Fourth, some paper or food plate waste might not have been included in the study due to being thrown into outside trash. Fifth, the study could not carry out immediate measurement of the after-lunch plate waste.

Journal reference:
Suchandrima Bhowmik

Written by

Suchandrima Bhowmik

Suchandrima has a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Microbiology and a Master of Science (M.Sc.) degree in Microbiology from the University of Calcutta, India. The study of health and diseases was always very important to her. In addition to Microbiology, she also gained extensive knowledge in Biochemistry, Immunology, Medical Microbiology, Metabolism, and Biotechnology as part of her master's degree.

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