Studies examine US meals in schools

School meals may be beneficial to students and be better in nutritional quality than meals brought from home, suggests two new studies looking at US students.

Elementary school students are more likely to eat breakfast at school if it's provided in the classroom, compared to another location, researchers write in JAMA Pediatrics.

Additionally, breakfast in the classroom was tied to better school attendance.

A second study in the same journal found that lunches sent with kids to school may be lacking in nutritional quality compared to those made at the school.

Meals offered by school will continue to improve, said Dr. Virginia Stallings, a professor of pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She wrote an editorial in the journal.

"The meals in school are going to keep getting better and better," Stallings told Reuters Health by phone. "They're going to get more wholesome and more nutritious."

In one new study at 12 Houston schools, researchers compared the foods elementary and middle school students brought from home and the amount they ate to the guidelines set by the National School Lunch Program.

Overall, lunches from home contained more sodium than guidelines recommend, but less fruits, vegetables, whole grains and milk. Ninety per cent of meals brought from home contained desserts, snacks and sugary drinks, which aren't allowed in the school lunch programme.

"I think this shows that it's hard to pack lunches that meet the nutritional guidelines that would be good for kids to have from an individual child and public health point of view," Stallings said.

Karen Cullen, the study's senior author from Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, told Reuters Health by phone that parents are the most important educators about eating right and overall health.

"Parents might need to include their children more in planning their meals and what are healthy choices," Cullen said.

Cullen and her co-author found that lunches brought from home for elementary school students ended up costing a bit more than school lunches, which were about US$1.80 (S$2.35).

Middle school lunches from home tended to be cheaper than school lunches, which were US$2.05.

"Certainly there are ways to pack a very low cost meal for a child," Cullen said.

"It depends on the motivation and the child and parents' needs and what they feel is important for their family."

In the second study, researchers studied 446 US schools with school breakfast programs and found that about 58 per cent offered breakfast in the classroom. Compared to schools that offered breakfast elsewhere, classroom breakfast increased participation in the programme, researchers found.

Schools with breakfast in the classroom also had slightly better attendance, compared to schools without the programme.

There was no difference in test scores, but researchers could only look at achievement at one point in time. More data is needed to evaluate whether breakfast in the classroom is tied to better test scores, said Stephanie Anzman-Frasca, the lead author, in a phone interview.

"We think it's important to measure achievement over longer periods to see if these results hold up or if there is a longer term impact," said Anzman-Frasca, who's with ChildObesity180, an organisation that promotes child health at Tufts University in Boston.

Lindsay Turner of Boise State University in Idaho told Reuters Health by phone that it takes time for these types of programs to show changes in achievement.

"It's important for parents to understand that breakfast is important for getting their kids ready to learn in the classroom (and) for improving their academics," said Turner, who coauthored an editorial on the new study. "It's not just about healthy eating, it's about getting the kids to do better in the classroom as well."

Anzman-Frasca said it's important for parents to know the type of breakfast programme at their children's schools.

Cullen said parents should consult to make sure they're packing lunches with the type and amount of food their children need.

"Parents need to realise that they really are important teachers of their children," she said.

"The skills of how to eat, how to cook and how to plan is learned in the home."