Pre-schoolers aren’t getting the nutrients they need in packed lunches

01 February 2017
Boy eating lunch

An American study has found that lunches made by parents for their pre-schoolers do not consistently provide adequate nutrients for children.

The study examined the packed lunches of more than 600 children attending early childhood education centres in a high socio-economic area of Texas.

It found that the lunches made by parents were often high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat, but did not give children enough of the vital nutrients they need.

This was partly because the pre-schoolers did not eat all of the items packed for them, but was also a result of the quality of the food provided.  

The study found that common foods in pre-schoolers’ lunchboxes were ham and cheese sandwiches, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cheese and yoghurt, pizza, eggs, fruit juice and flavoured milk.

Looking specifically at nutrients, the average pre-schooler’s lunchbox contained:  

  • Around 600 kilocalories
  • 55% carbohydrate, 15% protein and 31% fat
  • A lot of sugary foods, with 29% of energy coming from sugar
  • A lot of fatty foods, with 11% of energy coming from saturated fat
  • A lot of sodium, more than three times the recommended daily intake
  • Not enough dietary fibre or potassium
  • Enough iron and calcium, but most pre-schoolers didn’t eat all of this food so did not consume the recommended daily amount.

Pre-schoolers ate on average about 60% of the food packed in their lunches, with many tending to favour foods that were high in protein and cholesterol.

The authors say the quality of the lunches suggests that parents aren’t fully aware of their pre-schoolers’ dietary requirements.  

“The excessive amounts of sodium, sugar, and saturated fat suggest that there is a need for comprehensive environmental interventions to help parents who pack lunches offer adequate foods to their preschool children.”

The authors also say that parents also seem unaware of the increase in dietary needs for four to five year olds compared with three-year-olds.

They give the example of calcium requirements, which increase from 700mg per day for three-year-olds to 1000mg per day for four to five-year-olds.

“More information about the appropriate serving sizes to meet the nutrient needs of children and how to increase them relative to age should be emphasized so that parents can offer enough food to meet the dietary guidelines for their children as they grow older,” they say.

The authors say the study should be used to guide nutrition behaviour change for parents, either individually or through an environmental intervention.

You can read the full study looking at the quality of pre-schoolers lunches here.