School Lunch vs. Packed Lunch - 5 Questions for You

Can You Follow Food Safety Guidelines For a Packed Lunch?

School lunch
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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 each option and primary among those is food safety.

Most fresh foods require refrigeration to stay safe to eat. If your child's lunch will be out of a refrigerator for more than two hours before they eat it, you need to know that you can 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 the 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 lunch time.

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.

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

poison lunchbox of peanuts
Nut allergies are common reasons for parents to choose to pack lunches over school lunches. Tooga via Getty Images

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.

Allergy-Free School Lunch

Public school administrators are often required to create allergy and asthma policies for their local districts. Some schools have opted to go strictly nut or other common food allergy free. In addition, some of these schools will 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.

What You Can Do

Policies differ widely, though. If your child has a unique dietary need, be sure to find out what your local school's specific asthma and allergy policies are. If the policy is a good fit for your child's needs, you may be able to count on a nutritious school lunch that is safe for them. 

If it isn't a good fit, follow your medical provider's recommendations to prepare lunches. Also, ​be sure to let teachers and school staff know about your child's needs so the school environment can be adapted if needed.

Which Choice Is the Most Cost Effective for You?

Couple shops together in a grocery store.
Parents need to compare price and food quality between packed and school lunch options. Dan Dalton via Getty Images

The popular wisdom from frugal parents has been that a home packed lunch of leftovers will be cheaper than purchasing lunches from the school. This old piece of one-size-fits-all advice doesn't always hold true, though.

School districts are able to 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.
  • Low-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 Your Really Saving Money?

Compare the costs of the food that you would buy to the actual cost of the school lunch. Consider how much you would spend on the groceries required for packing lunches. You may be surprised at which one provides the best value. 

Which One Fits Into Your Schedule and Family Routine?

Family makes a lunch together in kitchen.
Does your family have the time avilable to routinely pack healthy lunches?. Gary Burchell via Getty Images

Packing a lunch for your child to take to school each day is one more task that needs to be handled on a regular basis. Preparing lunches could be a way for your child to learn daily life skills they will use as an adult. It may also be overly burdensome if you just don't have the time.

There are several different routine 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.
  • Try planning ahead and prepping up to a week's worth of lunches on the weekend so that a packed lunch is ready to go every day of the 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, stress-free way to make sure your children have a healthy lunch at school.

Which One Provides the Healthy Choices to Your Child?

A girl takes an apple in school lunch line.
Learning how to make healthy lunch choices starts during childhood. Steve Debenport via Getty Images

School lunches have changed dramatically in the last few years. The USDA's federal school lunch program has updated their guidelines to make school lunches more nutritious without being overloaded with calories.

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 picky eaters alike.

Some schools may lack the funding to meet the healthier requirements while providing good tasting food that kids will actually eat. The emphasis on whole grains with more fruits and vegetables increases the cost of the foods used to make school lunches. This forces some school cafeterias to sacrifice kid appeal to comply with regulations.

Picky Eaters and Lifelong Healthy Habits

Children that are extremely picky eaters may balk at the choices provided at school. Although many picky eaters will eventually learn to adjust to the healthy choices being offered, occasionally a child will not accept any of the new choices. Nutrition research suggests that taking away children's food choice is not the best way to encourage lifelong healthy eating habits.

In a study from the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, college students who had been given greater food choices from their parents while growing up made better choices than college students whose parents strictly controlled what their children ate.

This doesn't mean you need to let a picky eater call all the shots, though. The research instead suggests making children feel like they have food choices. Make sure your picky eater gets to choose foods from a few healthy options.

Some schools offer a choice of two or more meals each day. If your child's school only offers one option each day, you may be better off to include your child in preparing a healthy packed lunch where you offer healthy choices.


Murashima, Megumi, PhD, Sharon L. Hoerr, RD, PhD, Sheryl O. Hughes, PhD, Kendra K. Kattlemann, RD, PhD, and Beatrice W. Phillips, RD. "Maternal Parenting Behaviors During Childhood Relate to Weight Status and Fruit and Vegetable Intake of College Students." Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior 44.6 (2012): 556-63. 05 Dec. 2011. Web. 1 July 2016.

The United States Department of Agriculture. Cooperative Extension Service.

Storing Food for Safety and Quality. By Sandra M. McCurdy, Joey D. Peutz, and Grace Wittman. Moscow, ID: U of Idaho Cooperative Extension System, 2009. Print.

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