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Preschool Lunch Isn’t Always Nutritious

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

Parents may be sacrificing nutrition by giving their children the food they like when packing their preschoolers lunch. That’s one of the conclusions of a new study in the January 2009 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association. The study found that 71 percent of packed lunches didn’t have enough fruits and vegetables and that one in four preschoolers didn’t get enough milk with lunch.

“What we found primarily was that parents weren’t sending in as many fruits and vegetables and whole grains as they should, and the number of milk servings was low, too,” said study author Sara J. Sweitzer, a registered dietician and a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study was triggered by a recent change in Texas day-care regulations that allow day-care programs to stop providing meals and snacks. A subsequent survey found that about half of child-care centers in two Texas counties had chosen to do just that. But they survey also reported that directors of those centers said that children were being given chips, prepackaged lunches and “junk food” by their parents. Vegetables, fruits and whole grains were rarely included.

To determine whether or not these results were true, Sweitzer and her colleagues interviewed the parents of 74 children from five day-care centers. All of the children were between three and five years old and most were white and from families headed by two adults. The children’s lunches were observed for a three-day period so the researchers could accurately assess the nutritional content.

67 percent of the parents interviewed said they packed nutritious food, even though they thought their child probably wouldn’t eat them. 63 percent said they packed foods they knew their child would eat. Milk was available at the child-care center, but the child had to request it.

According to the study, only 29 percent of the packed lunches contained adequate fruits and vegetables and only 20 percent of the children had a milk serving at lunch. 11 percent didn’t get enough whole grains.

“Fruits and vegetables and whole grains need to be presented on a regular basis,” said Sweitzer, adding, “With chronic disease issues such as type 2 diabetes on the rise, this becomes a very key time to educate this child about nutrition.”

The easiest thing to do, she suggested, is to pack up some of the previous night’s dinner to be reheated in a microwave, which is usually available at child-care centers.

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