N° 38 | October 2009

Sack lunches and nutritional needs of young children who attend child care


Close to 13 million children under the age of six eat three or more meals and snacks daily at child care centers in the United States1,2. Federal and state régulations are used as guides for meals and snacks at most centers; however, many child care facilities exist that require parents to provide a daily “sack” lunch from home3. A recent study of 197 child care centers in Central Texas showed that 46% had closed their food service. In follow-up phone calls 16 of the center directors reported lunches frequently included “chips” and “junk food”, but rarely contained fruits and vegetables4 (F&V). The American Dietetic Association recommends that children attending fulltime child care should receive one half to two thirds of their daily nutritional needs while at centers for eight hours5. The Child and Adult Feeding Program (CACFP) maintain standards for F&V servings for meals and snacks at participating centers6. The sack lunch contents of 3-5 year old children in full time care were examined for foods children brought from home7.

Evaluation of the content of sack lunches

Seventy-four children attending five childcare centers in two Texas countries had their sack lunch contents recorded through direct observation for three days each for a total of 222 observations. The observations were averaged and compared to 1/3 of each child’s age appropriate Dietary Recommended Intake (DRI) and the standard for lunch meals for CACFP programs.

Sack lunches supply inadequate servings of F&V

Over 50% of the children had an average 3-day lunch contents that provided less than 33% of the DRI for energy (n=58), carbohydrates (n=59), dietary fiber (n=76), vitamin A (n=58), calcium (n=44), iron (n=44) and zinc (n=38). Only 29% (n=65) of the observed lunches provided adequate servings of F&V based on CACFP standards and only 20% (n=44) supplied the minimum servings of milk. The majority of lunches met the meat/meat alternatives and grain/bread servings, 68% (n=151) and 96% (n=197) respectively. Inadequate servings of F&V as well as large numbers of refined grain products contributed to poor dietary fiber content.

Participating parents (n=94) were asked to complete a brief survey about their attitudes toward nutrition and lunch packing habits. Surveys were completed by 51% (n=49) of the parents and 100% indicated that lunch was an important opportunity to receive nutrients for the day. However, 63% (n=31) responded that they tend to pack only foods that they know their child would eat. Further, 55% (n=27) acknowledged that their child sometimes received less than 3-5 servings of F&V per day and consumed excess junk food.

The need to pack a healthy lunch This exploratory study provided a snapshot into sack lunches that parents pack for their preschool-aged children who attend child care full time. The results would suggest that although parents know the value of nutritious lunches they may not exhibit the knowledge and skills to pack a healthy lunch and miss the opportunity to help their child learn and practice healthy dietary habits.

  1. Johnson J, 2005. http://www.census.gov/prod/2005pubs/p70-101.pdf.
  2. Children’s Defense Fund. Child care basics: 2001. http://cdf.convio.net/site/PageServer?pagename=research_national_data_child_care_basics.
  3. Kaphingst KM & Story M. Prev Chronic Dis 2009;6:A11.
  4. Enke A et al. Early Childhood Ed J 2006. Online ISSN:1573-1707.
  5. Briley ME & Roberts-Gray C. J Am Diet Assoc 2005;105:979-986.
  6. US Department of Agriculture. Child and Adult Care Food Program. http://www.fns.usda.gov/cnd/.
  7. Sweitzer SJ et al. J Am Diet Assoc 2009;109:141-144.