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I remember my school cafeteria food as being, well, not what I'd consider "food".

At the same time, I know how hard it is to consistently pack lunch as an adult without getting bored with the same meals over and over again. It takes time and planning that can be in short supply for a busy parent.

What are the pros and cons of packing lunches vs. having a child buy their lunches from the school cafeteria? How good (or bad!) is the food at school cafeterias? Have there been improvements in taste and nutrition?

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Also: How does peer pressure affect the child? Will he be the only kid with a lunchbox, while everyone else hangs out at the diner? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 31 '11 at 19:10
    
I'd look at the menus/food offered and go from there. A childs nutrition is that much more important than how busy your day is. –  Hairy Sep 6 '11 at 13:20
    
@Hairy this sounds like the start of a good answer. –  Beofett Sep 6 '11 at 13:21
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Regarding the US school food quality, or lack thereof: inquisitr.com/201688/… -- If that is what is being served, then definitely pack lunch! –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Mar 13 '12 at 14:58
    
@TorbenGundtofte-Bruun Like I said... not what I consider "food"! –  Beofett Mar 13 '12 at 15:01

6 Answers 6

up vote 15 down vote accepted

When my daughter was in elementary (aka primary) school, we did BOTH.

When the menu came out every month, we took 5 minutes and identified those days/items that were acceptable to us and to her, and on those days she bought lunch. The remaining days, a lunch was prepared and she took it with her.

As she got older, she got more involved in the decision about what items were acceptable, and she got more involved in determining what to put into a packed lunch.

Packing lunches was not as hard as you might think. Identify a (very) few choices (PB&J, salami and cheese, fruit, chips, drink boxes, etc) and keep those things around. One of the weekend chores was to check for missing items so they could be replenished. Occasionally she ended up getting lunch money on a day with less than great food because we were out of something or crazy busy, but it didn't happen often.

In high school (aka secondary) school, we gave her a weekly stipend and if she didn't want to eat the school food or was saving for something, she would pack her own lunch.

Other notes ...

  • School food quality varies tremendously. I suggest you go have lunch with the kid and give it a try.
  • There are standards for "nutritional value" in American public schools, but they don't mean much.
  • Don't spent a ton of time producing a "balanced" lunch or creating "variety". Kids trade things, give things away, and otherwise end up eating pretty much what they want anyway.
  • Remember, the real goal is not a perfect meal, but the relief of hunger enough so that the kid can pay attention in the afternoon. Get them a good breakfast and a good dinner, and it won't really matter what they do for lunch.
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Your last point is a worth a +1 on its own. The only time I would say it's potentially different is if they're in after school sports. At that point, they need a 'better lunch' more than otherwise. –  corsiKa Sep 1 '11 at 0:15
    
I especially like the idea of looking at the menu together. we do this. But to be frank, not many school meals can offer the nutrition you can give them so we always seem to come up with a good packed lunch plan for them, including soup in flasks. –  Hairy Sep 6 '11 at 13:21

If you are in the United States, I highly suggest taking a look at Jamie Oliver's School Food Revolution and Jamie Oliver's Tray Talk. The first is pretty eye-opening about how unhealthy our school lunch programs were even as recently as just a few years ago. Whether it is because of Jamie Oliver, the first lady, both, or neither, things are getting better. The second link teaches how to evaluate individual programs, and even offers up information for you and your child to view and learn from together.

Additionally, it offers ideas about how you can advocate for changes in your school if you feel they are needed. You can then evaluate your individual school lunch program from there and decide based on your particular needs.

The site's faq provides these answers to your questions:

Are school meals nutritious?

School meals are healthy meals that are required to meet science-based, federal nutrition standards limiting unhealthy fat and portion size and requiring that schools offer the right balance of fruits, vegetables, milk, grains and protein with every meal.

On July 1, 2012, new federal nutrition standards for school meals went into effect. Under these standards:

No more than 10 percent of calories can come from saturated fat and schools must eliminate added trans-fat.

School meals must meet age-appropriate calorie minimums and maximums.

Schools must gradually reduce sodium levels in school meals.

Cafeterias must offer larger servings of vegetables and fruit with every school lunch, and children must take at least one serving.

Schools must offer a wide variety of vegetables, including at least a weekly serving of legumes, dark green and red or orange vegetables.

Milk must be fat-free or 1% (flavored milk must be fat-free).

Within two years, all grains offered must be whole grain.

Why should I encourage my children to eat school meals?

Providing students their choice of milk, fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins, school meals are a great value and a huge convenience for busy parents. School cafeterias offer students a variety of healthy choices and help children learn how to assemble a well-balanced meal. Parents can rest assured that there’s no super-sizing in school cafeterias because federal regulations require schools to serve age-appropriate portions.

How are school nutrition programs working to make healthy meals kid-friendly?

Children can be notoriously picky eaters, but school nutrition directors are always working to find new healthy recipes that children are willing to eat. Many conduct student taste tests and involve students in menu planning.

Schools and the foodservice industry are making student favorites more healthy, such as serving pizza on whole grain bread with low-sodium sauce and low-fat cheese. Students often don’t even notice the difference. School nutrition programs also work to incorporate culturally appropriate foods into their menus to meet the tastes of their diverse student populations, as well as provide alternative foods for students with dietary restrictions and allergies.

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I've seen a few episodes of Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution show, and it definitely made an impression on me (actually, if I recall correctly, watching it and reading about his other work inspired me to ask this question!). The website looks like a good resource (I hadn't seen it before), but I'm going to edit in some citations from the site, so that this answer is more "standalone", and won't cease to be useful if something happens to that site. –  Beofett Nov 8 '12 at 14:09
    
Thanks. Looks Great. I added a link to the original stuff too (which had originally been intended). –  balanced mama Nov 8 '12 at 14:23

One thing to think of that I haven't seen mentioned: How many kids eat lunch with your child at the same time? It sounds stupid, but some lunches are so crowded and lunch periods can be so short, that sometimes students who go through the hot lunch line only get about 5-10 minutes to eat their lunch before the period is over and it's time to go back to class. In this case, packing your lunch has an advantage in that it provides you a more leisurely lunch. If your child is an exceptionally slow eater (and keep in mind that A LOT of socializing goes on during lunch so kids will eat more slowly), then packing might be the best way to go.

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How good (or bad!) is the food at school cafeterias? Have there been improvements in taste and nutrition?

That depends entirely on your school system. The only way to answer either question is to go to the school(s) you child(ren) will be attending and at least look at the food, if not sample it.

In the US, at least, the quality is still overall some of the worst food you can possibly buy that's still considered fit for human consumption (I kid you not, it's lower quality than what McDonald's used to have, and their food was barely considered fit for humans), and are typically extremely high in fat, calories, and sodium, and low in just about everything else. Some districts, however, have been fighting back and revamping their lunches to the point that if you walked into their kitchen, you'd swear you were at a farmer's market.

What are the pros and cons of packing lunches vs. having a child buy their lunches from the school cafeteria?

Depending on whether you qualify for free or reduced priced lunches, packing lunch may be more expensive. You also have to deal with the pitfalls of forgetting your lunch (that's where having a lunch money stash may come in handy, if you can trust your child not to spend it on junk), and keeping it edible sans refrigerator (though they've gotten fancy with lunch boxes these days), not to mention the ability to warm up food may be hit or miss (some schools allow students to use a microwave, some don't). You also have to tote the box back and forth, and risk crushing your lunch among your books (if you keep it in your bookbag). Finally, you also have to make said lunch, which requires a certain amount of planning.

On the other hand, you don't have to eat what someone else has decided you should eat that day. You also can account for any allergies you might have (or simply that you have an upset stomach and can't handle red sauce on pizza day). You can also eat whole foods from your choice of seller (which also means the option for organic foods if that's the food you like). You also don't have to go with foods traditionally associated with lunch (sandwiches, chicken nuggets, pizza), and can, therefore, do casseroles, pastas, or whatever else you want to eat. You can also eat however much you want. Obviously, if you aren't very hungry, either meal (school or packed) would allow you to eat less, but only packed lunch allows you to eat more without having to spend more that day.

These are just some that I thought of. I'm sure others could think of more.

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In the UK: Some schools forbid pupils to take cash in. The school has a card system. This has advantages:

  • bullies cannot steal cash
  • pupils cannot spend cash on non-food items
  • poor pupils with free-lunch are the same as everyone else, avoiding bullying

but there have been concerns about privacy and too much information on the card.

About food: There have been a lot of efforts to improve the nutritional quality of food provided by schools. I'm not sure how successful that's been.

Also, some schools have strict rules about food that pupils can take.

EDIT -- Schools have a very small budget for food to feed pupils. I would prefer to know my child had a nutritious meal available provided by me; this might cost me more to provide and would take me more time, but it would provide me peace of mind.

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Assuming that your kids' school gives you a choice of buying vs. bringing food, which would you choose? Why? –  Torben Gundtofte-Bruun Aug 31 '11 at 19:13

I think there are many variables that will affect your decision:

How old is/are your child/children? Can you trust them to make good lunch choices without being present? Does your school publish lunches in advance? Does your child typically eat the same things or do they vary their lunch regularly?

Our school system publishes their lunch schedule monthly. It seems healthier than the lunches when I went to school as they use whole wheat products, locally grown vegetables, etc. I have a middle school and elementary school child. Typically, there is a main lunch daily, but opportunities to buy other things such as pizza, chicken strips or sandwich if they don't like the main lunch.

We give our kids the menu and they choose which days they would like to buy versus bring lunch. They typically wind up bringing lunch most days.

I think you've touched on many of the pros/cons. Ultimately, it will depend on your school system and your child(ren).

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