What Are the Benefits of Bringing a Packed Lunch Instead of Having the School Lunch?

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School lunches are getting a lot of attention these days, and it’s not because schools are offering healthy and delicious meals. While many schools are working to make positive changes in the cafeteria, and reducing the amount of junk food that’s available, parents still have concerns and wrestle with whether to send their kids to school with a homemade lunch or let them purchase a meal at school. In some respects, packing a lunch from home has some significant benefits over cafeteria lunches.

Lower Calories and Fat

In many schools, the food options in the cafeteria aren’t always the healthiest. Pizza, hot dogs, french fries and other kid favorites appear more often than not, tempting youngsters to eat them instead of fruits and vegetables or other healthy choices. Depending on the layout of the school cafeteria, unhealthy choices may be the easiest options. In some schools, accessing fruits and vegetables or other low-fat choices may require standing in an additional line or visiting a different station. Sending a homemade lunch instead keeps your kids out of the lunch line and away from the temptation of junk food. It also ensures that they have easy access to the nutrient-packed foods they need to eat.

Cost and Quality

As school budgets are slashed, and food service departments scramble to find ways to feed large crowds on limited funds, the quality of school lunches can suffer. Fresh and organic options decrease or disappear in favor of canned or preserved foods. When you pack a lunch, you control the ingredients and choose items based on your budget and preference. In some cases, packing a lunch is not only healthier, but less expensive. For approximately the same cost as five days of school lunch purchases, you can buy enough ingredients to pack a healthy lunch each day, with the added peace of mind that your child has a wholesome and nutritious meal to eat.

Food Preferences

Many kids are picky eaters, and for a lot of them, school lunch options just aren’t appealing. Many schools offer a hot entrée choice each day, in addition to options like pizza or chicken nuggets. But if your child doesn’t like the main offering, he’ll gravitate toward to the items he does like to eat. If you have a picky eater, packing a lunch from home allows you to cater to her preferences, increasing the chance that she’ll actually eat.

For example, if your child hates bananas and apples, but those are the only options in the school fruit basket, he probably won’t eat any fruit. Pack an orange or some grapes, instead, and he’ll get a serving of fruit. In fact, kids who bring lunches from home often eat more servings of fruits and vegetables overall than kids who eat school lunches, according to a University of Michigan survey of more than 1,000 sixth-graders and published in the "American Heart Journal."

Allergies and Safety

Food allergies and sensitivities are a major concern for many parents. Whether your child has a life-threatening nut allergy, or experiences stomach trouble when she eats gluten, packing a lunch from home allows you to control what she eats for lunch. Especially in larger schools, catering to the dietary needs and restrictions for individual students is challenging, if not impossible, for the food staff. Packing lunches from home, and educating your child and his teachers, about the food allergy or sensitivity can help prevent medical issues. Food safety is another concern. While many schools follow the guidelines for safe food storage and preparation, sanitary issues in the cafeteria could endanger your child’s health.