How does your child's brown-bag lunch stack up against school lunches?
Credit: Illustration: Sarah Wilkins

I have a vivid memory of my first and last school cafeteria lunch. I don't remember what the tragedy on my plate looked like, but I do remember what it smelled like: canned meat and despair. Instantly, I became a lunch box extremist; I never bought lunch again, and my kids grew up eating brown-bag lunches only. I assumed that homemade fare had to be superior—in nutrition, smell, and appearance—to hot lunch offerings.

Fortunately, times and school lunches have changed. Alisha Farris, PhD, RD, a child nutrition extension specialist at Virginia Tech, also felt a lack of enthusiasm for cafeteria meals. "Before we did the study, I was packing a lot of lunches," she admits. In that study, published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Farris and her colleagues discovered that, in fact, school lunches earned higher marks than packed versions in almost every nutritional category. Cafeteria lunches delivered more protein, calcium, fiber, fruits, and vegetables than meals from home. And packed lunch boxes offered more sugar, unhealthy fats, and calories, and were much more likely to include high-sugar drinks and high-fat, salty snacks such as chips and crackers.

Farris, clearly a more level-headed mom than I, did not become an all-school-lunches-all-the-time extremist as a result of her research. Instead, she now offers her kids a mix of home and school meals. Keep reading for her tips for packing smarter lunch options.


Diversity is key
Farris recommends taking a page from the new USDA school lunch guidelines. "When you're packing lunch, include a protein, a low-fat dairy food such as skim milk or yogurt, whole grains, a fruit, and a vegetable, and focus on variety—lots of different-colored vegetables."

Patrol portions
Pay attention to portion size: "Little kids don't need adult portions." If you're not sure how to downsize meals for your kids, Farris recommends visiting for age-appropriate recommendations.

Plan ahead
Finally, to ensure kids actually eat their healthy lunches, Farris urges parents to involve their children in meal planning. "My kids and I sit down and look at the week's school lunch menu, and the kids decide on the days they'd like to buy lunch. And on those days when they bring lunch, I ask my kids, "Would you like the baby carrots or the sliced cucumbers?" I give them autonomy in choosing what they'd like in their lunches, and that makes it more likely that they'll eat them. There are studies that show that when kids are allowed to choose their foods, they are more likely to eat those foods."