New research reveals the nutritional myths about home-made lunches. by Jennifer Bowden.
The end to the holidays means the beginning of the inevitable daily slog – making school and work lunches. We may console ourselves with the belief we're doing our children a favour by providing a more nutritious meal than can be bought through a school-lunch service. However, a veritable smorgasbord of research has shown that home-packed school lunches are lower in nutritional value than school-provided meals.
Nutrition has a significant effect on the healthy growth and development of children, and they use about a third of their daily energy needs at school. So, what they eat there has a big influence on their health.
Although home-cooked meals are generally a more nutritious option than takeaways or many restaurant meals, the inverse is true when it comes to lunchtime. Home-packed lunches are nutritionally inferior because they typically provide less protein, vitamins and minerals. They also tend to contain higher levels of fat, saturated fat and sodium than school-cooked meals, which must meet rigorous nutritional guidelines.
Researchers say more effort should be placed on improving the quality of packed lunches provided from home for children.
However, parents face many hurdles in providing a nutritious, enjoyable school lunch for their children, according to a recent review published in the Journal of School Health.
For starters, they need to consider the environment it will be eaten in, with children often rushing to eat their food before the bell ending the break. Foods that can be opened easily and devoured quickly are therefore preferred.
Add to that concerns about food safety and ensuring the lunchbox is sufficiently chilled during summer and many parents choose instead to provide pre-packaged, shelf-stable foods to avoid any chance of food poisoning.
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For many parents, school mornings are inevitably a rush, too, with little time to prepare breakfasts and lunches before the commute to paid employment.
When lunchboxes come home with fruits and vegetables uneaten after parents have spent precious time preparing them, parents may instead opt not to include these foods. Instead, they'll substitute foods they know will be eaten and provide the necessary fuel for the child to get through the school day.
School lunch programmes can resolve many of these issues by following nutrition guidelines. Universal lunch programmes can also reduce nutritional disparities among children. For instance, in Japan, a universal school lunch programme has been lauded for reducing the nutritional differences between children from different socio-economic backgrounds, with the programme boosting the fruit and vegetable intake of children from lower-income households.
In the absence of such a programme, parents can help to boost the nutritional profile of their child's lunch with a few simple changes. The same goes for tertiary students and working adults keen to save money and live healthily. Including sandwiches and fruit is a good start, along with ditching potato crisps and cereal bars that are typically high in saturated fat and sugar respectively. Chopping up fruit and vegetables has been shown to boost children's intake of them at school.
UK researchers suggest a packed lunch should include:
• Starchy food, such as bread, pasta or rice
• A protein source such as meat, fish or a vege-tarian alternative (eggs, beans or nuts)
• At least one serving of fruit
• At least one serving of vegetables or salad
• Dairy food: cheese, yogurt, milk or a flavoured milk drink with less than 5 per cent sugar
• Fresh water.
Items that don't make the cut include: sweets, chocolate biscuits, cereal bars, potato crisps and other high-salt or high-fat snacks; and drinks other than water or milk.