Kids' Lunches from Home Don't Meet Guidelines

By Ruth Kava — Sep 07, 2016
A new story in the British press reveals that very few lunches brought from home are actually meeting nutritional guidelines. But the way to ameliorate the situation is not pass laws to regulate what can be included in that brown bag. Nutritional guidelines should be used to educate, not punish.

Children's nutrition is, of course, important for healthy growth and development, thus the concern about what they're eating at home, at school, virtually everywhere. One common assumption is that what kids bring from home is going to be better than or as good as, for example, what they eat in school lunch programs. A recent story in the British press suggests that isn't always (maybe often?) correct. 

The article cites a survey from Leeds University that examined the contents of several hundred home-packed lunches found that only 2 percent of them met all the British nutrition standards. For example, fewer than 20 percent met the standards for energy, vitamin A or zinc. 

What should be done? Well, one thing (we think) that shouldn't be done is for the government to institute a rule on what parents can provide their kids for lunch, as some have suggested. Why? Well, aside from the principle of privacy, and acknowledging that parents should be able to raise their children as they see fit, that policy would certainly be discriminatory. 

What children bring to school is certainly a reflection of the household's food — and in some cases, there may not be much in the way of healthful food to send. A better approach is to send suggestions home about what are reasonable and age-appropriate selections to send to schools, rather than chips and soda. And educating students about what they should be eating would filter to parents too.

Such suggestions bring up the question of the purpose of such guidelines. In the UK, the nutrition guides were first published in 1994. But in the US, they go back to the 1940s, when many young men were deemed unfit for military service because of nutrition-related problems (back then it was under-nutrition, unlike today when overweight is a problem). That inspired the first set of guidelines (and this was before all vitamins had been discovered or synthesized). The updated versions are used to set the standards for military meals, as well as institutional menus such as hospitals and schools.

Aside from these official purposes, such guidelines should be used as broad pointers to educate the public about what the latest mainstream science says about appropriate nutrition. They should not be used in punitive ways that discriminate against people who may not be able to match their lifestyles to a government-sanctioned ideal. 

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