MONDAY, Jan. 19, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- When parents pack their preschoolers' lunches, they may be sacrificing nutrition by giving the children food they like.
That's one of the conclusions of a new study in the January issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study also found that 71 percent of packed lunches didn't have enough fruits and vegetables, and that one in four preschool tots didn't get enough milk with lunch.
"What we found primarily was that parents weren't sending in as many fruits and vegetables and whole grains as they should, and the number of milk servings was low, too," said study author Sara J. Sweitzer, a registered dietician and a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.
An estimated 13 million American children eat three or more meals and snacks each day at one of the country's 117,000 regulated child-care centers. With the cost of food preparation and storage rising, more centers are requiring parents to provide food for their children, according to background information in the study.
The impetus for the study was a recent change in Texas day-care regulations allowing day-care programs to stop providing meals and snacks. A subsequent survey found that about half of child-care centers in two Texas counties had chosen to do just that. But, the survey also reported that directors of those centers said that children were being given chips, prepackaged lunches and "junk food" by their parents, and vegetables, fruits and whole grains were rarely included.
To assess whether or not this was true, Sweitzer and her colleagues interviewed the parents of 74 children from five child-care centers. All of the children were between 3 and 5 years old, and most were white and from families headed by two adults.
The children's lunches were observed for a three-day period so the researchers could accurately assess the nutritional content.
All the parents said they felt lunch offered an important opportunity to provide nutrients, but 55 percent said they knew their children sometimes received less than five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and that they consumed excess junk food, such as chips.
Sixty-seven percent of the parents said they packed nutritious foods, even though they thought their child probably wouldn't eat them. Sixty-three percent said they packed foods they knew their child would eat. Milk was available at the child-care center, but the child had to request it.
Only 29 percent of the packed lunches contained adequate fruits and vegetables, according to the study, and only 20 percent of children had a milk serving at lunch. Eleven percent didn't get enough whole grains.
"Fruits and vegetables and whole grains need to be presented on a regular basis," said Sweitzer, adding, "with chronic disease issues such as type 2 diabetes on the rise, this becomes a very key time to educate this child about nutrition."
The easiest thing to do, she suggested, is to pack up some of the previous night's dinner to be reheated in a microwave, which is usually available at child-care centers.
Ann Condon-Meyers, a clinical registered dietician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said: "Nutrition education starts at home. I wouldn't focus so much on what goes in the lunch sack, but more on how a family eats, and then incorporate your usual healthy eating at home into what you send in for lunch."
At this young age, she pointed out, choking is still a concern, so vegetables generally need to be somewhat soft. And food safety is also a concern because refrigeration isn't always available.
Sweitzer said she recommends putting two ice packs into your child's lunch, because one isn't always enough to keep the temperature down.
The Nemours Foundation offers more advice on packing nutritious lunches.