Should Your Child Bring Lunch to School or Buy?

School lunches have been a hot topic lately. Everyone from Michelle Obama to Jamie Oliver has been calling out the often horrible stuff served to schoolkids under the guise of a healthy lunch and trying to help schools make better lunchtime choices.

That leaves health-conscious parents, not to mention budget-conscious ones, with a dilemma: Let your child buy the school lunch or have them bring it and set yourself up for the hassle of packing lunch daily.

It's a tougher decision than you might think.


Here are some of the offerings at my daughter's school this week (and based on a quick look at school lunch menus in other districts, this is pretty typical):

  • Popcorn chicken, potato "starz," corn, diced peaches
  • Mexican nachos (with that orange cheese-like sauce, no less), lettuce, mixed fruit
  • "Bosco sticks" (soft breadsticks with cheese and sometimes pepperoni stuffed inside), marinara sauce, fresh orange.

Not what I'd choose to feed her, to say the least. But she rarely gets food like this outside of school, and she really likes the school lunch sometimes. What to do? Here are some of the pros and cons you might face when deciding what to do for your child's lunch.

School lunch pros:

Portion sizes are appropriate

Good variety of food

Less headache for parents in shopping, cooking, etc.

Food is served at proper temperatures

It's actually less expensive (at many schools) than buying and packing food

There's always one vegetable serving and one fruit serving; not always true of home lunches

School lunch cons:

Holy processed horror! What are "potato starz" anyway?

Concerns about the nutritional value of lunches

Don't want child to develop a preference for processed food

Not much adventurousness in flavors, types of cuisine, etc.

Packing lunch pros:

Control over the preparation and variety of food offered, fruit is always fresh, not canned, vegetables are not salted, etc.

Can meet child's specific food preferences, within reason

Can send lunch notes

Can choose organic, natural food

If the whole lunch isn't eaten, child can have leftover veggies or fruit as snack on way home

Can use leftovers from previous night's dinner

Packing lunch cons:

Boredom with the same old thing

Food safety -- not always easy to keep things fresh

Peer pressure: Yes, kids can and will pick on each other for bringing an "uncool" lunch

Trading -- that apple might just be getting swapped for Rockin' Razzleberry Artificial Flavor Snacks

More expensive, especially when food isn't eaten

Hassle for already-busy parents

The horror of discovering on Monday that no one remembered to take the lunchbox out of the backpack on Friday

We do what I suspect many parents do: pack lunch most days, but let her buy lunch on pizza day or if there's something on the menu she really likes. That way, we get the best of both worlds -- knowing she's got a healthy lunch most days, while allowing her a little fun with what she eats.

Do you pack your child's lunch, let them buy, or a little of both? How did you decide?


Image via DC Central Kitchen/Flickr

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