All the parents said they felt lunch offered an important opportunity to provide nutrients, but 55 percent said they knew their children sometimes received less than five servings of fruits and vegetables each day, and that they consumed excess junk food, such as chips.
Sixty-seven percent of the parents said they packed nutritious foods, even though they thought their child probably wouldn't eat them. Sixty-three 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.
Only 29 percent of the packed lunches contained adequate fruits and vegetables, according to the study, and only 20 percent of children had a milk serving at lunch. Eleven 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.
Ann Condon-Meyers, a clinical registered dietician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, said: "Nutrition education starts at home. I wouldn't focus so much on what goes in the lunch sack, but more on how a family eats, and then incorporate your usual healthy eating at home into what you send in for lunch."
At this young age, she pointed out, choking is still a concern, so vegetables generally need to be somewhat soft. And food safety is also a concern because refrigeration isn't always available.
Sweitzer said she recommends putting two ice packs into your child's lunch, because one isn't always enough to keep the temperature down.
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