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Oh, dear. Packing your kids’ lunch might not be the healthiest option anymore.

Two years ago, new federal guidelines aimed to up the nutritional intake of school lunches. Bye-bye, mystery meat and chocolate milk; hello fruits, veggies and whole grains.

New evidence suggests the healthy push is working. In a study funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation,

70 percent

of school administrators polled said kids embraced the healthier lunches.

Rural students were more likely to complain about the healthier food, perhaps because school cafeterias in rural communities have less access to tasty, healthy options. But cafeteria sales rose in cities and disadvantaged schools, the ones where more than 66 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price meals.

Kids’ lunches that are packed by parents actually fall way, way short of the guidelines.

In other words, needy kids ate healthier lunches than they had in the past. That’s a big win.

But all is not perfection in the lunchroom. Lunches packed by parents actually fall way, way short of the federal guidelines. That’s right — a lunch from home typically packs just a tiny fraction of the good stuff that helps kids grow, according to a second study.

Researchers at Tufts found that busy, cash-strapped parents may just toss snacks and a sweet drink into the lunch box and call it lunch. More than 40 percent of kids bring their lunch to school, and only

27 percent

of those lunches met three of five national health standards. Almost a quarter of those lunches were prepackaged meals or snacks plus a sugary drink.

Meanwhile, just 4 percent of snacks met at least two out of four national standards that focused on fruit, veggies, whole grains and low-fat dairy.

Changing what parents pack for lunch remains a challenge, especially when ready-made options seem faster and cheaper than healthier choices. One easy fix: Pack water instead of something else to drink. It’s cheap, and it’s healthier for the kids.

Educating parents helps, too. Handing out 3,600 leaflets in English and Spanish to parents of preschoolers boosted lunchtime nutrition, according to a University of California Cooperative Extension project. (You can download the guidelines for free.)

But parents — it might worth letting your kids buy lunch instead of brown-bagging it.

Top Image Source: Keith Beaty/Getty Images

Anne Miller

Anne Miller