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Is Your Child Lunchbox Fat? See What Researchers Just Found

Tim Boyer's picture
Here's how to stuff a healthy lunchbox for kids

You may not realize it, but you may be making your child lunchbox fat. Here is what a new study found in today’s kid’s lunchboxes.


Recently, more focus on the battle against obesity is taking place not just in the school lunchroom with vending machines, but also in the lunchboxes parents pack for their school-age children. And for good reason. Research shows that the rate of obesity is increasing like never before not just in adults, but in young children as well.

According to a new study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, University of Adelaide researchers found that children aged 9-10 years old are receiving almost half of their daily energy requirements from "discretionary" or junk foods.

"We found that children obtained over half of their daily energy from carbohydrates and about one-third of their energy from fats, half of which was saturated fat," says lead author Dr. Melissa Whitrow from the University of Adelaide's School of Public Health and the Robinson Research Institute.

"We know that an unhealthy diet is a key contributor to obesity and also paves the way for other health problems in later life, such as poor cardiovascular health. The establishment and maintenance of healthy eating habits during the transition from childhood to adolescence is also very important."

What the researchers found from analyzing the lunchbox meals of 436 children ranging from low to high socio-economic status families, is that there are a number of significant dietary issues behind what is going on during lunchtime at school:

• Boys and girls consumed an average of 156 grams and 161 grams of total sugar per day respectively.

• 91% of children had fewer than the recommended daily servings of vegetables.

• 99.8% of children had fewer than the recommended daily servings of non-processed meat or protein alternatives (such as eggs, nuts, beans, chickpeas or lentils).

• 83% of boys and 78% of girls consumed more than the recommended daily intake of salt.

• Fiber intake was inadequate in 41% of boys and 24% of girls.

• Red meat tended to be the dominant meat.

• Dairy intake was inadequate in 83% of girls.

"At this stage in their lives, girls need to eat more dairy as they head towards puberty, as this is important for their bone density," says Dr. Whitrow.

In spite of the dietary limitations of the meals the children had in their lunchboxes, the study concluded that, “…as a group, a large proportion of children were able to meet their daily nutrient requirements. However, achieving this through noncore foods meant that diets were high in salt, saturated fat and sugar.”

The researchers recommend that more servings of core foods and greater dietary diversity would be preferable and that families are in need of more support to optimize dietary patterns of children in this age group.


Here is a recommendation by the UK’s largest health website—NHS Choice—on what a balanced lunchbox should contain:

• Starchy foods―these are bread, rice, potatoes and pasta, but instead of sandwiches, give kids bagels, pitta bread, wraps and baguettes. Use brown, whole meal or seeded bread, not white bread.

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• Protein foods― including meat (lean is best), fish, eggs, beans and others.

• A dairy item―this could be cheese or yoghurt.

• Plant life―vegetables or salad and a portion of fruit.


• Breadsticks and whole meal crackers are great finger foods that can be spread with low-fat soft cheese or eaten with reduced-fat cheddar and pickles.

• Replace chocolate bars and cakes with fresh fruit. Vary the fruit each day and get them to try new things, such as kiwi or melon.

• Unsalted nuts are a great snack food for children to have at home, but it's best to leave them out of your child's packed lunch. Many schools ban nuts to protect pupils with a nut allergy.

• You could also make up a tasty fruit salad. Be inventive and encourage your children when they try something new.

• Note that dried fruit is no longer recommended as a between-meal snack as it's high in sugar and can be bad for teeth.


And for more about what kids have to say about the food they eat, with some advice from life coach Debbie Lewis, here are some suggestions on how to encourage your child to eat more healthily.

For more about controlling obesity in your child, here are a few select articles that can help prevent your child form becoming obese:

Prevent Childhood Obesity at Home with This Study Advice

The Better Breakfast Choice for Fighting Childhood Obesity

Two Ways a Mother Can Protect Her Child from a Life of Obesity


The University of Adelaide news release—“Kids' eating habits highlight need for healthier lunchboxes

Core food intakes of Australian children aged 9–10 years: nutrients, daily servings and diet quality in a community cross-sectional sampleJournal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics; Article first published online: 29 MAR 2016; M. J. Whitrow et al.

NHS Choices―Healthy Lunchbox Treats

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