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From the College of Natural Sciences
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Peeking Inside Lunch Boxes

Peeking Inside Lunch Boxes

Harry_S._Truman_Lunch_BoxThe food that parents are packing for their children in childcare may be lacking in nutrients, reveals a study by nutritionists Sara Sweitzer and Margaret Briley published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

Sweitzer, a graduate student in nutritional sciences, evaluated sack lunches that parents were preparing for their children in five child-care centers spread out in three cities in two counties in Texas.

She found that an overwhelming majority of the children included in the study received less than one-third of the nutrients they needed from the lunches. On the other hand, the average amount of sodium in most of the lunches studied was more than a day’s recommended intake.

Sweitzer’s study was motivated by recent changes in Texas state regulations that make it easier for childcare centers to relinquish the duty of preparing meals for children in child care to parents. In Texas, as in many other states, childcare centers provide food that meets standards recommended by the American Dietetic Association.

Even prior to the change in Texas regulations, a study showed that children eating meals provided by a food program had higher intakes of nutrients, such as vitamin A and riboflavin, and ate more vegetables and milk than those who ate meals prepared from home.

Providing kids with the right food is not an easy job, says Sweitzer.

“Despite knowing the right foods their children should eat, parents are concerned that food will come back home uneaten in their children’s lunch boxes,” she says. This incites parents to give their children foods they know they will eat, which often aren’t the healthiest.

“Getting the kids to child care is a very hectic time for parents and unhealthier, prepackaged foods are easy to pack,” she says.

Parents are also limited in the choices of food they can pack, because refrigeration is not always available at the childcare center. And Sweitzer found that many foods packed at home requiring refrigeration were not kept at ideal temperatures, even with an ice pack.

Children can make use of available facilities like refrigerators and microwave ovens in many childcare centers, but Sweitzer notes that in many cases, “parents haven’t thought to ask.”

To get kids used to eating healthier foods, Sweitzer, who is also a registered dietitian, suggests planning to use dinner as a time to introduce new foods. Children are more likely to eat familiar foods, so leftover foods from dinner (now familiar) can easily be used in the lunchbox the next day.

Sweitzer says that forming good eating habits is critical for kids of childcare age. Young children, especially from the ages of 3 to 5, start forming food habits and preferences, and that meals and snacks eaten at child-care centers help to form those habits, healthy or not.

In the future, Sweitzer hopes that better nutrition education can be provided for all parents, so that they can learn to build better lunchboxes for their kids.


Written by Daniel Ting

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Saturday, 04 February 2023

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