School lunches haven’t always had the best of reputations. Over time, however, a lot of effort and resources have been put into developing healthy school meals for children. The cafeteria school lunch has evolved into a well-balanced, carefully constructed meal designed to benefit each and every child.
The USDA has created the National School Lunch Program to set concrete guidelines for children’s meal planning in the United States. The program allows students to have free or reduced lunches and provides guidelines for what exactly needs to be on each plate. In addition, it has created connections with various sources to ensure the schools get fresh, healthy food.
This has been my 1st year experiencing school meals with my children. I was always very curious if school lunches were the healthier choice for my kids. Since the pandemic started, the federal government has provided free meals to all US children aged up to 18, whether they are enrolled in school or not. This program has been in place for over a year now. Many families are taking advantage of it for different reasons.
However, my children have yet to enjoy a school lunch actually served in school! We pick up the meals and have them at home. It’s been a great option to have, and I’ll explain shortly the benefits and the reasons we decided to take advantage of it.
So, which is the best school lunch option for your family? Are school lunches healthy? Is it more beneficial to make your own school lunches? Let’s explore the facts and see what’s best for your family.
What are the benefits of packing a healthy lunch vs. buying a school lunch?
Kids of all ages, from preschoolers to high school seniors, need healthy food throughout the day to sustain their energy levels and succeed in the classroom. It’s important to fuel kids with the nutrition they need at every stage of their growing years.
You may think it’s better to pack your own lunch, and that might be true in some cases. Some benefits of packing your kid’s lunch include:
- The child (and you) can have more choices about what goes into their lunch.
- The meals cater to your family’s and child’s needs (i.e., being vegetarian or having a food allergy).
- It’s potentially less wasteful as your kids can bring home any leftovers instead of throwing them away on a school tray.
The downside of packing a lunch is being unable to make sure that your child eats everything. However, the same goes for school lunches. You can’t sit next to your child every day to make certain they eat all of their lunch.
There are also plenty of benefits in having your child eat a school-provided lunch, such as:
- They get properly balanced nutrition that is in compliance with the USDA standards.
- The meals could be available at a reduced cost or even free of charge.
- It’s less of a time commitment for you.
- There is easy access to local produce and products.
- For remote learners, it provides a connection to the school. The kids love getting their lunch bags out of the fridge by themselves and enjoying the variety on offer.
What makes the perfect school lunch?
The USDA My Plate Guide is the template schools use to provide nutritious meals for children. It’s also a perfectly good guide for you if you make school lunches at home.
Each meal should include:
- Protein–meat, chicken, beans, peas, eggs, and/or nuts
- Whole grains–using whole grains (instead of white bread) provides fiber, vitamin B, and minerals. Whole grains also help kids avoid cravings and feeling hungry during school hours.
- Milk–every school lunch includes 1% milk, providing children with calcium, vitamin D, and additional protein.
Here’s an example of what we have received from the school and an example of what you could make at home with the same nutrition standards. Also, you can see how the cost factor at play. Is it cheaper to make school lunch at home or buy it at school?
The average cost of school lunch for elementary students is $2.48. The average price of breakfast is $1.46.
A sample school lunch could include:
- Turkey sandwich with cheese on whole-wheat bread
- Unsweetened applesauce
- Carrot sticks with ranch dressing
- A carton of 1% white milk
It’s pretty simple, right? You can easily duplicate that at home. A similar option would be:
- Turkey and hummus pinwheels
- Carrot matchsticks (julienned using a tool like a mandoline or a sharp knife)
- Cinnamon apple chips
- Low-fat cheese cubes
- Drink of choice (bottled water, 100% juice, or individual milk carton)
Depending on the type of ingredients you buy (organic, fresh, all-natural, etc.), this lunch can cost from about $2 to $4 to make. I like to shop at Costco or another wholesale store for items like the ones listed above. I have found that they offer healthy items at a discounted rate. Plus, it helps me stay within budget.
Additionally, I use bento boxes for my kid’s lunches and snacks. They make meal management and cleaning up easier. Also, there is less plastic waste.
Which lunch option is better?
This is all going to depend on your lifestyle, budget, and preferences.
There should be no shame in wanting your kids to buy lunch at school. If you’re in the United States right now, it’s 100% free. Breakfast and lunch are provided to all children 18 and under, whether or not they are in school or learn remotely.
Many other countries (for example, Sweden and Finland) already offer free lunches to kids. Some countries provide free lunches to help improve attendance. It’s an excellent strategy for all schools to consider for many reasons.
In fact, there is a big push for this free lunch service to continue well past the pandemic. Offering free lunch to all students will end the debate over buying lunch vs. bringing lunch and any associated stigma. It’s also eliminated the application process for those who qualify for reduced or free lunches in a non-pandemic world.
Alternatively, there are many reasons why you might prefer to make your kid’s lunch. Perhaps they are a picky eater, or they have food allergies. Sometimes, it’s easier to be in control of what your child is eating.
So, there is no “right” answer here. My personal opinion is that we should be supporting the decision to offer universal free lunch to all students. The option should always be there for any student, regardless of the household income situation. Healthy meals are an essential part of a child’s day. If you can put this under the control of the schools and the USDA, all children will be introduced to healthy eating habits at an early age.
Teaching healthy eating habits is a joint effort
As caregivers, we still need to set good examples at home when it comes to healthy eating. Encouraging our children to make healthy choices at home will help them make healthy choices at school, too. Opting for healthy dinners, snacks, and weekend meals is a big part of developing a healthy nutritional plan for children of all ages.
Here are some recipes you can use to make school lunches for kindergarteners all the way up to high school students. They are simple and have easy-to-find ingredients. While some might take a little time to prepare, remember that it’s well worth it when it comes to our children developing healthy habits.
I’ve provided 3 recipes with different levels of difficulty. My kids like the basic items, like the pinwheels, and appreciate the make-your-own things, like the chicken and bean dip on crackers.
I hope this helps shed some light on the school lunch programs offered to our children. I wasn’t all that familiar with them until we started receiving the meals ourselves. Now I look forward to picking up the free school lunches every week!