THURDAY, July 31, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- A home-packed lunch isn't necessarily healthier than school cafeteria fare, a new study suggests.
The new research found that just 27 percent of the lunches third and fourth graders brought from home met three of five National School Lunch Program (NSLP) standards.
"Our findings are similar to results of other studies of children's packed lunches from across the world, which have found that high-calorie packaged foods and beverages are more common than fruits, vegetables and dairy," said Kristie Hubbard, a research associate at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston.
A quarter of the lunches did not have a primary entree, such as a sandwich or leftovers, and most of these lacked yogurt, cheese, peanut butter or another protein instead of an entree. Only a third of the packed lunches included fruit, and 11 percent included vegetables, yet a quarter included sugar-sweetened beverages.
Among the 42 percent of lunches with snack foods, the most common packaged foods were chips, cookies and candy, Hubbard said.
The typical snack brought for snack time was a sugar-sweetened beverage and a snack food or dessert. Only 30 percent of snacks were fruits, and only 10 percent included dairy foods.
"Perhaps people should not be so quick to judge school lunches because this is worse," said Lona Sandon, a registered dietitian and assistant professor of clinical nutrition at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas. "What students are bringing from home is not better than what's being offered in schools."
Approximately four out of 10 youngsters bring their lunches to school instead of buying school cafeteria meals, according to the study.
For the current research, packed lunches and/or snacks of more than 600 third and fourth graders were photographed and catalogued. Parents consented to the study, but were not notified ahead of time of the exact day the researchers would look at their child's lunch.
On the day in question, nearly half the students brought lunch from home. Almost all of them also brought a snack. The other 325 students brought only a snack and planned to buy a school lunch.
Just over one in four lunches met a majority of the school lunch standards set for cafeteria meals. These standards call for a half a cup of fruit (excluding juice), 3/4 cup of vegetables, 1 ounce of grains, 1 ounce of meat/protein and 1 cup of milk.
Fifty-nine percent of kids brought a sandwich, the most commonly packed lunch food, according to the study. Water was the beverage of choice for 28 percent of lunches, according to the study.
A parent's education level didn't seem to make a difference as to what food was packed. More than 80 percent of the students' mothers had college educations or higher, noted Sandon.
"Often times we think higher education level in mothers would translate into better nutrition practices, but this is not necessarily the case," said Sandon. "It's important to get this information out there to help make parents aware that they may not be making the best choices for their kids."
Parents also face several challenges in packing healthful lunches for their children, she said. The parents may be time-crunched and need to pack food that does not require refrigeration or reheating, perhaps accounting for the high proportion of prepackaged foods.
"Convenience of preparation and convenience of nonperishable items are largely what they're thinking when they put things together," Sandon said.
Yet there are still ways to swap a high-calorie, less-nutritious food for a healthier option.
"The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a balance of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy as the building blocks of healthy meals," Hubbard said. "Making small changes over time, such as switching to whole grain bread, adding lettuce to a sandwich or replacing cookies with a favorite fruit, can go a long way toward better nutrition."
Sandon added that easy-to-eat fruits and vegetables, such as apples, grapes, bananas and carrot sticks, hold up well, as do no-sugar-added prepackaged fruit cups and low-fat string cheese.
The study was limited because the data came from mostly white, higher-income participants. Further, the researchers do not know who -- parents, students or someone else -- packed the lunches or what the children actually ate at lunch.
The research, funded by the Boston Nutrition Obesity Research Center and the National Institutes of Health, was published online recently in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Find out the details of the National School Lunch Program standards at the USDA Food and Nutrition Service.