The Lunchbox Advantage: Why you should pack a healthy school lunch

It all started with “Mommy Lunches.” When Ellie was little, her preschool didn’t offer a school lunch. I put on my RD hat and began tinkering until I had a lineup of fun, varied and healthy packed lunches I felt good about, and — this is important — Ellie felt good about eating. When the time came that she could buy lunch at school, she didn’t want to. By then, only “Mommy Lunches” would do.The Lunchbox Advantage: Why you should pack a healthy school lunch, from Holley GraingerIt’s a great story of nutritionist-Mom triumph. But it didn’t exactly hold. Ellie eventually felt the lure of the corn dog. She wanted to venture out and eat what her friends were eating. One thing I’ve learned as an RD and as a mother is never to make rules about foods being all good or all bad. I also wanted to give her the opportunity to explore new foods prepared and served by other people. So, I let her.

Which is Best? School Lunch or Homemade Lunch

There’s definitely a debate in both nutrition and parenting circles about whether school lunches or homemade lunches are best.

I say a healthy lunch that your child will eat is best.

So let’s talk about healthy school lunches.

No matter what the source, healthy lunches are critical for growing bodies and minds.

Healthy lunches can:

  1. Improve kids’ overall academic performance. (1)
  2. Boost their test scores. (1, 2, 3, 4)
  3. Potentially improve behavior and reduce disciplinary issues.

Unless you’re a first-time reader, you know I do healthy lunchboxes. Big time! From 125 Healthy Lunchboxes for Kids to hacks like my “Lunchable” makeover I’m here to help you fill those little tummies with great options that will power them through busy school days. 

Here’s a surprise, though. Some of the few major studies to put school lunches head-to-head with packed lunches found that school lunches were actually healthier.

Since major reforms were put into place in 2010, the USDA requires the National School Lunch Program to meet strict guidelines for calories, saturated fat, and sodium, and to include fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

There are no standards for packed lunches, though. In this 2014 study, the researchers found that homemade lunches had more calories, fat, saturated fat and sugar, but less fiber, protein and calcium. A USDA sponsored study also found that students who packed lunches were less likely to have milk, fruit or veggies, and instead to have more desserts, snacks, and drinks other than milk or 100% juice.

This doesn’t mean you should toss that adorable little bento box and sleep in an extra 10 minutes every morning. First off, just because there are no standardized guidelines for packing a healthy lunchbox doesn’t mean that you can’t pack a lunchbox that is not only perfectly healthy, but perfect for your own child. (Stay tuned throughout lunchbox season, as I send you idea after idea for making your healthiest lunchboxes ever.)

Another big point to consider: kids who eat school-provided lunches don’t always take or eat the healthy food that’s available. They may not like broccoli or apple slices or what is on offer. For instance, the Pew Trust reported in 2016 that, although trends are improving, 36.4% of school lunch veggies are tossed uneaten.

The Lunchbox Advantage: Why you should pack a healthy school lunch, from Holley Grainger - will this child eat her apple?

When you pack a lunchbox for your child, you know not to put olives in there if your kid has spat out every olive they’ve ever tried. You know they’re hot on pepper strips and are slowly warming to eggplant. Your chances are good for giving them healthy options they will eat, and options that match their unique needs, such as increased calories for after-school athletics or fueling a growth spurt. You also know the bigger picture of their diet – how each lunch fits into that week’s nutrient balance, and how it fits in with habits like eating smaller breakfasts or avoiding all red foods. You, as a parent, can adapt and customize.

Finding Balance at Lunchtime

What does this all mean for parents? Two things are clear to me.

First, the school lunch vs. lunchbox debate doesn’t have to be black and white. Maybe you pack 4 balanced lunches each week and let your child enjoy pizza at school on Friday. Kids tend to develop healthier eating behaviors when parents relax some restrictions and offer kids more control. Both options can be reasonably healthy, so you don’t need to lose sleep if you want to send your kids to school with lunch money now and then.

Second, studies are clearly showing the average lunch-packing family can do better. There is more call than ever for crafting creative, tasty and healthy lunchboxes your kids will gobble up. Lunchbox season is upon us, so let’s step it up!

To get you started, check out my 125 Healthy Lunchbox Ideas for Kids. It has all the inspiration you need for making fun mid-day meals your kids will love. Then watch this space, because over the next few months I’ll share ideas for gluten-free and nut-free lunchboxes, building a better lunchbox, and lots of clever mix-and-match boxes to get your creativity flowing and help your kids have their most successful year yet.

More Healthy Lunchbox Ideas

Lunchbox Headquarters

Be sure to follow my #healthylittlelunchbox ideas on Instagram too!

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The Lunchbox Advantage: Why you should pack a healthy school lunch