As schools begin opening their doors, parents are likely focused on their child’s educational needs, things such as supplies, teachers, peers, etc. One area that can get lost in the shuffle is lunch. For anyone that grew up in the 80s or even 90s, school lunch meant greasy pizza, hard chicken nuggets, and dry spaghetti. Although some of the dishes tasted very good, nutritional qualities were largely ignored. It’s no wonder many students brought their own lunch from home.
Fast forward to the present and school lunches are more nutritious than ever. I reached out to Michelle Draxten, Cass County Public Health Nutritionist and Dana Reith, Food Service Director for West Fargo Public Schools to answer the question of whether it is healthier to eat school lunches or bring lunch from home. The answer is not as easy as one would think.
“All school meals are planned to meet the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines,” they explained. “All meals meet standards for calories, sodium and saturated fat.” They went on to explain that lunches are also planned within specific calorie ranges for each age group. In other words, an elementary student does not have the same calorie needs as that of a high school student, and therefore won’t receive the same lunch.
Still, some parents prefer to decide on their own what their child eats for lunch. In that case, Michelle and Dana offer this advice: “Parents should include fruit and vegetables daily. Packing ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables (ones that are washed and pre-chopped) can make it easier and more fun for children to consume,” they said. “Avoid sending sugar-sweetened beverages (e.g., soda pop) and foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients.”
In terms of cost, I had erroneously assumed that lunches from home would cost less than those prepared at school. “School meals are affordable and often less expensive than packing a lunch from home,” my experts said. “In addition, school lunches provide a well-rounded meal consisting of protein, whole grains, vegetables, fruit and low-fat milk at an affordable price.”
For those of us that grew up eating processed foods for lunch, it is refreshing to see a paradigm shift. “Most schools are decreasing the number of processed foods they serve and adding more foods prepared from scratch to their menus,” Michelle and Dana explained. “Healthy school foods taste good and are well-received by students. Many schools even offer daily fruit and vegetable bars/carts with a variety of choices.”
According to Michelle and Dana, there is an additional benefit to eating school-prepared lunches. “School lunch provides an excellent opportunity for children to try foods they think they might not like and exposes them to foods they may have never tried before.”
There is absolutely nothing wrong with packing your child’s lunch. Many young people have certain nutritional needs that can best be monitored by the parent. If you are packing a lunch because you believe the school lunch to be unhealthy, however, that was yesterday’s thought. In reality, today’s school lunches are both affordable and healthy.
By Jamee Larson