Is School or Packed Lunch Right for Your Family?

Parents have many decisions to make every day. Among those is whether to pack your child a lunch or have them eat what the school provides. There are health benefits to both options.

Packing a lunch can give you more control over what foods your child is eating. If your child has a severe food allergy or other food sensitivity, packing a lunch may seem like the only option. Until a few years ago, it was the only option for parents of children with special dietary needs. Some schools are now offering healthy meals that may be an option for kids with allergies.

1

Can You Follow Food Safety Guidelines for a Packed Lunch?

School lunch

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Most fresh foods require refrigeration to stay safe to eat. If your child's lunch may be out of a refrigerator for more than two hours before they eat it, you will need to implement a plan to keep the food held at safe temperatures.

The USDA Cooperative Extension Service recommends that perishable foods that are not eaten within two hours of cooking are refrigerated at a temperature lower than 40 degrees.

Keep a Packed Lunch Cool

Remember that the packed lunch will have to remain below 40 degrees until it is eaten. Think about how many hours your child's lunch will be sitting in its lunch pack between the time you take it out of the fridge in the morning and your child's lunchtime. Even if the lunch will be eaten sooner, it can be a good idea to use ice packs or to freeze a juice box or water bottle to include.

  • Choose insulated containers that will keep your child's food safe through the school morning. Include two ice packs (one at the top of the insulated bag and one on the bottom) for cold foods. Or use one ice pack and one frozen beverage.
  • You can also check to see if there is a refrigerator where children can store their lunches at school. If kids do store an insulated bag in the refrigerator, they should open the bag to allow cool air to enter.

School Lunch Safety

School lunches are prepared and served in an area that meets state laws for safe food. Safe food handling and storage should not be a concern for school lunches.

2

Does Your Child Have Any Food Allergies or Other Dietary Issues?

Packing a lunch can give you more control over what foods your child is eating when it comes to foods they may be allergic to. If your child has a food allergy or other food sensitivity, packing a lunch may seem like the only option—and it might be, depending on your school. Until a few years ago, it was the only option for parents of children with special dietary needs.

Allergen-Free School Lunches

Public school administrators are often required to create allergy and asthma policies for their local districts. Some schools have opted to eliminate nuts and/or other common allergy foods from school lunches. Also, some schools require that any packed lunch brought to school also be free of a specific allergenic food —regardless of whether or not the child who brings the lunch has that allergy.

If your child has a unique dietary need, be sure to find out what your local school's specific allergy policies are for both packed lunches and those provided by the school. If the school lunch policy is a good fit for your child's needs, you may be able to count on a safe, nutritious school lunch when or if you want to use it.

What You Can Do

Even if your child does not have dietary-related allergies, you still need to know what allergy food policies apply to your child's school and classroom in order to keep all students safe. Policies are typically a result of a task force coming together to figure out what works best for the community. Policies can include asking all families to refrain from sending an allergenic food to school in any lunch or snack, and other ways to keep students with allergies safe as well as included.

If the policy isn't a good fit for your child, follow your medical provider's recommendations to prepare lunches. Also, be sure to let teachers and school staff know about your child's needs before the school year begins so the school environment can be adapted if needed and a safety plan can be put into place.

3

Which Choice Is the Most Cost Effective for You?

Couple shops together in a grocery store.

Dan Dalton / Getty Images

The popular wisdom among parents has been that a home-packed lunch of leftovers will be less expensive than purchasing lunches from the school. This advice doesn't always hold true, though.

School districts can purchase large amounts of food in bulk, allowing the schools to prepare a lot of food at a low cost, with savings passed on to parents.

  • Some school districts even subsidize the cost of school lunches for all families, further lowering the out-of-pocket costs of school lunches.
  • Lower income families are also eligible to get free or reduced-cost lunches at any school that participates in the USDA school lunch program (which is almost all public schools.)

Are You Really Saving Money?

Compare the costs of the food that you would buy to the actual cost of the school lunch. Add in any costs for packing materials, averaged out over time, and take a look at what your child eats and enjoys. You may be surprised at which option provides the best value. 

4

Which One Fits Into Your Schedule and Family Routine?

Family makes a lunch together in kitchen.

Gary Burchell / Getty Images

Packing a lunch for your child to take to school each day is a task that needs to be handled on a daily basis. If your child is old enough, preparing their own lunches (or part of them) could be a way for them to learn daily life skills they will use as an adult.

There are several different strategies that parents can use to make sure that lunches are ready to go each school morning.

  • Have a set time after dinner in which any leftovers go into lunch containers to be refrigerated and ready to take the following morning.
  • Find out if there is a microwave available at school that your child can use to heat their lunch. It may be easier to send a homemade soup or casserole in a microwave-safe storage container then placing the heated items in a heat-insulated thermos. 
  • Try planning ahead and prepping several days' worth of lunches at a time so that a packed lunch is ready to go every day of the week but you only need to prep twice a week.

School Lunch May Be Easier

Not every family is able to reliably take the time to ensure that a lunch is ready to go to school each and every morning. Paying ahead for school lunches can be an easier, lower-stress way to make sure your children have a healthy lunch at school. If you qualify for low- or no-cost school lunches, then this can be an important way to meet your weekly household food budget.

5

Which One Provides Healthy Choices to Your Child?

A girl takes an apple in school lunch line.

Steve Debenport / Getty Images

School lunches have changed dramatically over the last decade. The USDA's federal school lunch program has updated its guidelines to make school lunches more nutritious, varied, and appealing.

Overall, this has been great news for kids eating school lunch across the country. Unfortunately, the new policies have been challenging for underfunded school districts and parents who have to cover the price difference in many cases.

Some schools may lack the funding to meet the healthier requirements while providing good tasting food that kids will eat. The emphasis on whole grains with more fruits and vegetables, as well as access to drinkable water, increases the cost of the foods used to make school lunches.

Selective Eaters and Lifelong Healthy Habits

Children that are extremely selective eaters may balk at the choices provided at school. Although many students will eventually learn to adjust, occasionally a child will not accept any of the options being offered. Nutrition research suggests that taking away children's food choice is not the best way to encourage lifelong healthy eating habits and that the more options they have throughout the week, the better for their overall eating habits.

In one research study, college students who had been given greater diversity of food choices from their parents while growing up made more nutrient-rich and varied choices than college students whose parents strictly controlled what their children ate.

This doesn't mean you need to let a selective eater call all the shots. Rather, offer them choices so they can feel some autonomy when it comes to eating. For instance, offer them the choice between two lunch options. You're still choosing the foods offered, but they get to choose which they'll have.

Some schools offer a choice of two or more meals each day. If your child's school only offers one option each day, and your child is a selective eater who is not interested in this option, you may be better off to include your child in preparing a packed lunch where you offer healthy choices.

A Word From Verywell

School lunch or packed lunch: Only you can really make the best decision for your child and your family. Whichever option you choose, you will know why you are making that choice and the benefits of that choice for your family.

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  1. Murashima M, Hoerr SL, Hughes SO, Kattelmann KK, Phillips BW. Maternal parenting behaviors during childhood relate to weight status and fruit and vegetable intake of college students. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2012;44(6):556-63. doi:10.1016/j.jneb.2011.05.008