What Can Make or Break a Healthy Lunch for Kids?

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Capri Sun or 100% juice. Milk or flavored milk.

The drink you put in your child’s lunch can make or break a healthy lunch.

In fact, drink choice is linked to the overall dietary quality of the food packed in lunches by parents for their preschoolers (ages 3-5), according to a new study led by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

What does this mean for Latino preschoolers and the health of their lunches?

Latino Kids and Sugary Drinks

Latino infants are twice as likely to be fed sugary drinks than their non-Latino peers. They are also more likely to have had a sugary drink by age 2 (74%) than their white peers (45%), according to a Salud America! research review.

Ads that push sugary drinks are a problem.

Latino preschoolers saw 23% more sugary drink ads on Spanish TV in 2013 than in years prior, according to a Salud America!research review.

Parents, child care teachers, and the center directors may not realize how unhealthy fruit drinks really are. It’s as bad as drinking soda.

Maria Romo-Palafox
Postdoctoral Fellow, UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity

Fruit drinks are another problem. Nearly one-third of parents who think sugary sodas are unhealthy don’t think fruit drinks are unhealthy. Yet fruit drinks can contain as much or more added sugar as soda.

For the Rudd Center study, researchers wanted to explore just how important drink choice is in lunches.

Preschooler’s Lunch

The researchers—from  the Rudd Center and the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston School of Public Health in Austin (MSDC)—examined lunch data for 607 preschoolers at 30 early care and education centers in Austin, Houston, and San Antonio. The population of Latino kids younger than age 5 is larger than the average population in all three cities: Austin (48% vs 34%), Houston (57% vs 44%), and San Antonio (71% vs 64%).

Early childcare education (ECE) centers are critical to influencing a child’s diet. 60% of children spend much of their week at these centers. They consume 50% to 67% of their daily calorie requirements there.

The new research showed that, the more sugary the drink, the worse the nutritional value of the overall lunch.

The study also confirmed that some parents confuse fruit drinks and 100% fruit juice. This implies that drink companies purposefully boost the perceived healthfulness of their unhealthy drinks.

“Parents, child care teachers, and the center directors may not realize how unhealthy fruit drinks really are,” Romo-Palafox said. “It’s as bad as drinking soda.”

The study also reflects the health halo effect, also studied by the Rudd Center. The health halo effect in marketing is when a parent’s impression of a product is influenced by positive associations with something unrelated, like physical activity. In this case, drink companies use something related, like 100% real juice, to sell sugary fruit drinks.

“The simplest way to improve the nutrition quality of the lunch is to include a healthy beverage,” said Maria RomoPalafox, a Rudd Center postdoctoral fellow and lead author of the study.

The study has three big implications for action:

  1. Parents can help increase their child’s health by packing a healthier drink option.
  2. ECE centers can improve their own nutrition standards. They also can educate parents on sugary drinks and healthier options to improve the nutrition quality of parent-packed lunches.
  3. Public health advocates can create campaigns to raise awareness and increase access to healthier drink options. For example, the Lafayette Youth Advisory Committee pushed Colorado leaders to pass an ordinance requiring all local restaurants to offer only milk and water with kids’ meals.

“Working together, parents, teachers, and health professionals can spread the word about how important it is to choose a healthy beverage when packing a lunch for a child,” Romo-Palafox said.

Learn more ways to promote healthy foods and drinks to kids:

Healthy Drinks for Kids!

Explore More:

ECE, Water

By The Numbers By The Numbers

40

percent

of Latino kids participate in preschool programs vs. 53% of white kids.

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