School lunches and lunches brought from home: a comparative analysis

Child Obes. 2012 Aug;8(4):364-8. doi: 10.1089/chi.2012.0012.


Background: Considerable effort has been put forth to improve the nutritional quality of school meals by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). However, a large percentage of children do not obtain their meals from school and instead bring lunch from home. Little research has focused on the content of these lunches. The purpose of the current study was to examine differences between school lunch and lunch brought from home.

Methods: Children in the 2nd grade from seven schools in a large suburban school district were observed on three separate days. A total of 2107 observations were made, with 38.5% of these being lunches brought from home. Chi-squared analyses evaluated differences in the presence of specific food items between school lunch and lunch brought from home.

Results: Compared to children with a school lunch, children with a lunch brought from home were significantly less likely to have fruits (75.9% vs. 45.3%), vegetables (29.1% vs. 13.2%), and dairy (70.0% vs. 41.8%) (p < 0.001). Children with a lunch from home were more likely to have snacks high in sugar and/or fat (17.5% vs. 60.0%) and non 100% fruit juice/fruit drink (0.3% vs. 47.2%) (p < 0.001) than children with a school lunch.

Conclusions: The NSLP has been widely criticized; however, conducting a comparison in this manner demonstrates advantages to children obtaining school lunches. Although it was beyond the scope of this study to examine diet quality (e.g., actual intake and nutrient/caloric density), these results provide compelling evidence that lunches brought from home should be an area of emphasis for research and intervention.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Dairy Products*
  • Food Analysis*
  • Food Services*
  • Fruit*
  • Humans
  • Lunch*
  • Nutritive Value*
  • Schools*
  • Vegetables*