School Lunch or Packed Lunch?

 In General Health, Nutrition

School lunches are starting to shake their bad reputation. The days of considering ketchup a vegetable are behind us, thanks to the National School Lunch Program’s new nutritional guidelines.

Many changes have been made, including not allowing fruit strips or drops to be counted as a serving of fruit. Now, schools are offering fruits and vegetables every day as well as switching from refined to whole grain carbohydrates. Not only that, but schools are also eliminating trans fats and greatly reducing the sodium content of the foods offered.

Which is Healthier?

While many people still consider packed lunches to be healthier than school lunches, that may not be true. In a study done by Virginia Tech, it was discovered that packed lunches are less healthy than school lunches. The packed lunches had less protein, fiber, vitamin A and calcium than school lunches, as well as containing more saturated fat and sugar.

The school lunches did not come out ahead on a few things, however. The school lunches contained more sodium than packed lunches and less iron and vitamin C. Overall, the school lunches were healthier.

What Makes Packed Lunches Unhealthy

It seems that some parents who pack lunches opt for “convenience foods” such as bagged chips, Lunchables or sugared drinks. Some even purchase pre-made sandwiches and fruit snacks (which contain greater amounts of high fructose corn syrup than fruit). These bagged foods are typically highly processed and high in sodium or bad fat.

Parents find it difficult to find the time to prepare fresh fruits, vegetables or other foods for their children’s lunch. Time if of the essence when getting a child out the door for school. Sometimes parents sacrifice quality for the sake of time.

How to Make a Packed Lunch Healthier

Making a packed lunch healthy is simple, though it does require more hands on time. Make sure your child has a fresh protein in their lunch box, like sliced turkey breast or leftover grilled chicken. Cut it into a “lunchable” size to make it more appetizing.


The easiest way to make sure your child gets fresh fruit, is to put a whole apple or banana in their lunch box. However, if you child prefers cut fruit, prepare some the night before so you don’t have to rush during the morning.


Vegetables can be tricky, but by chopping up a week’s worth of carrots or celery on Sunday night and portioning them into single servings you save yourself a lot of time and stress. If your kids don’t like to eat their vegetables plain, give them a healthy ranch dressing or hummus to dip their veggies in.


Always use whole grains instead of refined. Whole grain tortillas, bread or crackers are healthier for your child while just as convenient as the refined options.


Make sure your child has access to low-fat or non-fat dairy. Be careful what brands of yogurt you buy; check the ingredients list for high fructose corn syrup and artificial dyes. Single serving yogurt can be full of these things.

Good Fats

Your child also needs a source of healthy fats, such as nuts (peanuts, almonds, or whatever nuts your child will eat). Some children love avocado and would welcome a small portion in their lunch to give them the amount of fat their body needs to absorb the nutrients in fruits and vegetables.


Last but not least, ban sugary drinks. Substitute with water. Your child needs a liquid to stay hydrated, but boxed or pouch drinks containing high amounts of sugar which will not adequately hydrate your child and will put them in a position to have a sugar crash later in the afternoon.

What You Can Do

Following these guidelines gives you the opportunity to give your child a healthy lunch that you have control over. By making your child’s lunch, you can make sure they get healthy foods you know they enjoy. However, knowing that the lunches that schools now offer are healthier than ever before, you can rest assured that there is a reasonably healthy option waiting for them at school.

Photo credit: Rubbermaid Products / Foter / CC BY

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