Heather C Heather C is a married, mom of three: big sis Lily and identical twins Natalie and Sophia. She has been guest blogging for Mumbling Mommy since February of 2012 and began working as a Social Media Editor in 2014. After nearly a decade in banking, she now works part time at a doctor's office specializing in breastfeeding medicine and spends the rest of her days in her Midwest home as zookeeper/stay-at-home-mom. Heather C is also a runner, hiker, yogi, bike rider and more. She reads when she finds more than a few minutes to herself and she hosts a lot of pajama dance parties in her kitchen. In her spare time, she's the co-leader for her daughter's Girl Scout troop and an active member of the school's Parent-Teacher Committee as well as a certified postpartum doula.
What school lunches SHOULD look like.
Photo via Fox News Latino.

With June already gone and back-to-school season almost here, I’ve been thinking. This year my oldest child is attending a full afternoon preschool where a meal is included. So I wondered, should we rely on the school’s provided snacks and lunches to be adequate or should we tackle sending homemade options for her? Are school lunches healthy? With my own recent health issues, we’ve made major changes in our diets. These changes have had a huge impact on my daughter’s IBS as well (for the better). So it’s my job now as a parent to investigate the options offered by schools and compare them to what I could send if I pack a school lunch for my little one.

According to a menu planning document on the USDA’s website, the National School Lunch Act mandates that “schools must serve lunches that are consistent with the applicable recommendations of the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.” This includes meeting specific requirements for calories and fat as well as getting a variety of grains, proteins, fruits, vegetables and dairy. At first glance, it seems buying school lunch would be a fine choice especially if your family qualifies for free or reduced lunch. This can provide a seemingly healthy option that your family might not be able to afford to buy and pack in a school lunch yourself.

Is this the best thing for your child though? A standard school lunch of meat, fruit/vegetable, dairy and grain might not be as great as it seems. Here are a few examples:

Some Examples of School Lunch

·       A hot dog on a bun served with sweetened applesauce and a carton of chocolate milk meet the requirements as a healthy school lunch. The hot dog is full of sodium nitrates, the bun made of bleached, enriched white four, the applesauce sweetened with artificial sweeteners and the chocolate milk likely full of unnatural dyes.

·       Chicken nuggets served with macaroni and cheese and tator tots also meet the requirements. The chicken is mostly comprised of fillers, the macaroni is not whole grain and is loaded with yellow coloring, and the tator tots (counting as a vegetable) are likely fried prior to being frozen and then baked before getting served to your child.

School lunches are highly processed, no better than fast food in many cases. They are bulk meals lacking in freshness, nutrients or any other health value. So should you buy school lunches? No, you really shouldn’t. Are school lunches healthy? No, they really aren’t. Is it time to learn the ins and outs of how to pack a school lunch? Absolutely!

I could go on and on about the wide variety of options you can send with your child when you pack his or her school lunch, but another blogging mom already has that covered. Lisa over at 100 Days of Real Food has an entire section of her blog dedicated just to school lunches including reusable supplies, recipes and pictures. If you are new to this process, start there. She’s like the Martha Stewart of awesome kid-friendly healthy lunches.

The problem I keep running into, though, is that we do not qualify for free lunch. We can afford to eat clean and unprocessed foods so it’s easy for me to come to the conclusion that we will send lunch and snacks with my daughter. With so many families surviving on incomes lower than poverty level, though, the general consensus is that a free school lunch of these “healthy” standards is better than anything that a lower income family can buy and provide, especially if they have multiple school-aged children at once. There are situations that warrant a parent allowing children to buy school lunch instead of packing a school lunch.

In general, I would prefer changes were made to improve the school lunch program so this debate doesn’t have to exist, but until then, each parent has to do what is best for his or her family as a whole. Remember, if buying a school lunch doesn’t feel right to you, there ARE options for eating healthy on a budget. Just see the 98,000 results on Google. Happy lunch packing!

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Category: Food

Tags: clean eating