Researchers in a recent study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior have found that National School Lunch Program (NSLP) meals are more nutritious than lunches brought from home.
The study took place after the 2012-2013 National School Lunch Program standards were implemented, observing meals over five consecutive school days at three public schools in rural Virginia. Researchers analyzed a total of 1,314 lunches from pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students. Of these lunches, 42.8% were packed lunches and 57.2% were NSLP meals.
The study found that NSLP meals were more likely to contain fruit, vegetables, no-sugar-added juice, and milk than lunches brought from home. Previous research has shown that children require repeated exposure to new foods in order to increase their acceptance of the food, so the presence of fruit and vegetables in the NSLP meals plays an important role in creating healthy habits.
While 61% of the packed lunches contained a dessert item, no dessert items were offered by the National School Lunch Program. Packed lunches were also more likely to contain sugar-sweetened beverages and savory snacks like chips than NSLP meals. Researchers found packed lunches to be higher in energy, carbohydrates, fat, saturated fat, and sugar than NSLP meals, while NSLP meals contained more protein, fiber, and calcium than packed lunches.
The researchers concluded that packed lunches were less nutritious than school lunches. These results highlight the successes of the new menu standards that were introduced with the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. One fascinating aspect of this study is that the researchers analyzed the NSLP meals that students actually put on their trays, not the entire menu offered. With this in mind, the results suggest that participants in the National School Lunch Program are regularly getting practice in selecting healthy, balanced meals.