The Time You Save with School Lunch

My daughter is in 3rd grade this year. As a mom and Registered Dietitian, you might be surprised to hear that I rarely pack a lunch for her from home.  Why? Because I know that school meals are a healthy choice. How do I know? I’ve spent most of my 13 years as a dietitian working directly in a school nutrition department, and indirectly as a School Wellness Consultant. School nutrition departments work hard to feed millions of kids every day, and there is real science that shows school meals pack more nutrition. She loves lunchtime because she feels like a big kid, with a sense of adventure and ownership of the foods she chooses. That’s a big deal when you are 8!

If you’re not sold on the idea of school lunch yet, consider all the benefits: an easy system for busy moms, meals that meet MyPlate standards and a happy kid – all for about the same price as a packed lunch!

School Lunches Save You Time – A Lot of Time

This is how we do it in my house:

  • Every month I go to our school district’s website and print the menu for the month. Some schools send these menus home in the backpacks of kids.
  • Based on her likes and dislikes, we decide which days she wants to eat a school lunch and which days she wants to pack her lunch.
  • I usually pay for a month’s worth of meals on our school district’s website, but there are other options as well.
  • I sit back and enjoy the days she will be eating a school lunch!

Truthfully, I have come to dread the days I have to pack a lunch! Either I make it the night before at the end of a long day, or I make it during the morning rush. That all takes a toll on my sanity and my time. That time adds up, too. It takes 15 minutes to pack Ella a lunch; that’s more than an hour a week. If the menu’s just right and Ella selects school lunch often, I can save more than 35 hours a year. That’s almost an entire workweek.

School Lunches Provide Optimal Nutrition

Packed lunches are more work – and usually not better. For packed lunches, I need to balance what she likes to eat with what is healthy. If I don’t have those foods on hand, there’s a trip to the store. And for all that work, it’s still about the same cost as school lunch. Our inner voice claims only we can provide the best foods for our kids because we know them best. Unfortunately, we aren’t doing them any nutrition favors. Even when working for a school district as the dietitian, I would often look to see what kids would bring from home, and what they would eat. Looking at their lunch bag leftovers, we often saw that they only ate their chips and dessert. As a registered dietitian nutritionist, I refuse to send a lunch with Ella that doesn’t include vegetables. But even my really good eater is on a veggie strike lately. So there goes 15 minutes or more of my time that may or may not be eaten. Ugh!

School lunches meet high standards. Ensuring that your child is meeting those same school lunch nutrition standards when you pack a lunch can be challenging and expensive – even for a dietitian! Contrary to popular belief, we dietitians don’t calculate the nutritionals of every meal. But the school lunch program does. School meals provide the essential nutrients children need to fuel their brains and bodies, and healthy students are better students. Therefore, I’m certain the $2 we pay daily for lunch is money well spent.* Learn more about their high standards and yummy choices.

School lunches offer more adventurous choices. Have you ever noticed how adventurous your kids are if their friends are cheering them on? After school we talk about Ella’s day and what she ate at lunch. By this I mean I ask about 10,000 questions, and she responds with as little as humanly possible. Today she had cheesy lasagna, fresh grapes and milk that met all those nutrition standards I mentioned before. That is way more delicious and adventurous than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, Cheetos, applesauce and boxed juice (even 100% juice) – which is also more calories and less nutrition than the school lunch.

I am confident in Ella’s choice to be a big girl and learn to fuel her body while she is at school. It’s a win-win: less stress for me, good nutrition for her.


* If you are finding that your food money is tight and you have less access to food for your kid’s lunch at certain times of the month, you can fill out an application at your school and see if you qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Scroll down on this link to check your state’s eligibility guidelines. Your kids eat the same lunch as the kids who pay the full price, and no one knows the difference!

By Mary Dickson, RDN, LD

Mary is a registered dietitian nutritionist with a background in clinical dietetic work, as well as school nutrition. She has been part of the Dairy MAX team since 2012. When she's not working, Mary enjoys spending time with her family and their Great Dane. Learn more about Mary

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