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In a study published this summer, photos of the contents of 600 lunches packed for children in third and fourth grade in several Massachusetts schools revealed rather depressing facts: home-packed lunches were like many over-rated things in the old joke.
“When deciding what to pack, parents are juggling time, cost, convenience, and what is acceptable to their children. Unfortunately, these factors are not always in harmony with good nutrition,” according to Jeanne Goldberg, a researcher at Tufts University and a senior author of the study of the lunchbox contents.
“Lunches were comprised more of packaged foods than anything else. ... Almost a quarter of the lunches lacked what would be considered an entrée, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and were instead made up of a variety of packaged snack foods and desserts.”
"This study points to the need to help parents find ways to build nutrition into the packed-lunch routine. The researchers acknowledge that this is a challenge that will require creative approaches to packing lunch boxes with affordable, easy-to-prepare, and healthy options while at the same time creating a demand for these options among children." (source)
Government guidelines now require among other things that school lunches include fruit and vegetables, and avoid sugary drinks -- unlike the home-packed lunches on average. Kids and parents complain and threaten, but follow-up studies of the changed school lunch suggest that kids get used to it, and actually eat healthier meals: eventually. From a commentator at CalorieLab, here's a key observation: "There are a number of things the kids probably don’t like about school in addition to healthy lunches, such as the teachers, tests and homework, but their wishes are not our command. Please tell me I don’t have to explain why letting children make their own food decisions is nuts." (source)