Background: An estimated 40% of children bring a packed lunch to school. These lunches are not required to meet nutrition standards. The aim of this study was to compare differences in the nutritional quality of elementary packed lunches by the presence or absence of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB), desserts, and fruits and vegetables (FVs). Methods: Observational data for prekindergarten and kindergarten packed lunches were collected from three schools in rural Virginia for 5 consecutive school days and analyzed for macro- and micronutrients and by the presence or absence of food and beverage items. Results: Of the 561 packed lunch observations collected, 41.7% contained no FV, 41.2% contained an SSB, and 61.1% contained a dessert. The nutrient profile of packed lunches with at least one fruit or vegetable had significantly higher levels of carbohydrate, fiber, sugar, vitamin A, and vitamin C. Packed lunches containing an SSB had significantly higher levels of sugar and vitamin C and significantly lower levels of protein, fiber, vitamin A, calcium, and iron. Packed lunches containing a dessert had significantly higher levels of energy, carbohydrate, fat, saturated fat, sodium, sugar, vitamin C, and iron and significantly lower levels of vitamin A. Conclusions: Additional research is needed to fully understand parent and child motivations for packing lunches and the decision processes that influence the inclusion of food items. The development of packed lunch interventions, encouragement of National School Lunch Program participation, or enactment of school policies to increase the nutritional value of packed lunches is warranted.
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