Let’s Talk About School Lunch: Bring or Buy?

The age old debate; school lunch or home lunch?

As we prepare for what we’re all hoping is a more normal school year, with kids back in the classroom, our thoughts return once again to that old question: school lunch or home lunch?

several lunch trays
School lunches in the U.S. aren’t quite this fancy

Before we get into this, I want to tell you what my mother, who went to Iowa City’s Horace Mann in the 20th century, said about her own school lunch. She liked to pack a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and she liked them sort of . . . squished. So she would sit on them. Until the lunchroom monitor said this was unsanitary (I must point out that these sandwiches were wrapped in waxed paper); after this, she would continue to squish them, now by flattening them with her lunchbox.

On to the 21st century . . .

School Lunch in the Iowa City Area

It’s important to tell you that in 2021-2022, many schools are feeding all children, regardless of income status, for free. This is part of a free lunch program under the National School Lunch Program. This school year, Iowa City schools have free (so no need to buy) lunches (and, in some cases, breakfast) for elementary and secondary school students. The student will need to take the full meal to qualify to have it free; a la carte items will still be charged. If you think you may have qualified for free or reduced lunch, I still encourage you to apply even though lunches are free—this may help with other school fees, and also means more federal grant money for the district.

And on the subject of packed vs. cafeteria lunch, your faithful Iowa City Moms contributors had thoughts on the subject. It all started with this question:

School Lunch vs. Packed Lunch

Is forcing your kid to eat school lunch to try to break them of their picky eating genius, or cruel?  Asking for a friend . . .

My answer was:

My picky eater kids would starve, so—packed lunches it is. They pack their own lunches. I literally no longer remember what my kids packed in their lunch, but I can promise you it wasn’t anything like a delightfully stylized bento box. I think (youngest) lived on Uncrustables for a year (until she got sick of them). (Middle) used to pack a cream cheese bagel every day. She got in a mild amount of trouble for sharing said cream cheese bagel with a friend in the 6th grade, an injustice she is still mad about six years later.”

My daughter’s lunchbox, heavily edited

Some other answers:

School lunch 100 percent unless (child) specifically asks me to make her something. School lunch is probably healthier than anything I’d make for her.”

“My kids all pack their own lunches and have since kindergarten. We pick a couple of meals a month that look good to them on the lunch calendar (walking taco day seems to be a can’t miss experience ) and they buy on those days. For lunch packing, the kids have categories that they have to take. Like at least one fruit, at least one protein, etc. and then they can add whatever else makes them happy and their lunches always get eaten because they got to pick what they wanted to eat.”

Several kinds of food laid out on boards
Charcuterie (aka fancy Lunchables)

“I pack (child’s) lunch but that’s because she doesn’t eat dairy and the school options are less than ideal for her.”

“Last year I went with the “send them to school to have school lunch to help with picky eating” but because (child) is not really a picky eater but kind of in a phase where she’s standing up to us about trying things that we want her to eat. It seemed to work fine because she always ended up eating at least some things of the lunch.”

Plain Brown Bag
Does anyone really use brown bags?

“As someone who obsessively loved packing bento style lunches daily for my oldest, I can’t remember the last time I packed a lunch. My kids all have the ability to pack one if and when they want. I’ve come to learn that whether or not they want to bring lunch has less to do with the meal options and more to do with what their friends do so they can sit together.”

“My kids do not eat school lunch and I do not pack their lunch. They have been packing their own lunches since kindergarten. I taught them how to pack them by putting stuff into containers in the fridge when they were little (protein compartment, fruit compartment, veggie compartment) and told them they had to pack at least one from each compartment. Then one thing from the pantry. Now it’s a complete free for all (I think sometimes (child) just packs a sleeve of Ritz crackers) but when they pack crummy lunches for themselves, they usually suffer just enough (i.e., are starving) that they self correct.”

And perhaps the best response of all, “No way in […] I’m packing anybody a lunch, you can eat the school lunch or you can starve. I have no time for that mess.”

What’s your plan? Do you pack lunch for your kids? Have them pack it themselves? Take school lunch?



Sharon Falduto is a Central Iowa native who came to University of Iowa in 1991 and essentially never left the area. She is involved in local community theater, notably as one of the co-founders of Iowa City's Dreamwell Theatre. She has also directed children's plays with the Young Footliters group. Sharon works in with English Language Learners in a support position at Kirkwood Community College.. She lives in Coralville with her husband, Matt, and three daughters Rachel, Samantha, and Piper.


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