New study reveals parents’ views on school meals

Parental control is the No. 1 reason why kids don’t eat school meals.

CHICAGO—To increase participation, child nutrition directors have two audiences to reach—students and parents. A new study released by Datassential reveals the barriers school foodservice programs face when it comes to parents not selecting school meals for their children.

The No. 1 participation barrier is that parents prefer more control over what their kids eat, with 53% of respondents selecting this response. That was closely followed by, my children don’t like/eat the cafeteria options, at 49%.

The study also asked parents what challenges they face regarding cafeteria food at your children’s school? Thirty-nine percent of parents find that short lunch periods are the biggest challenge. Other challenges include: my children don’t like/eat the cafeteria offerings (38%), I prefer more control over what my kids eat (29%), not enough healthy/nutritious offering (29%) and too expensive (29%).

“Schools can increase participation and a la carte sales by offering grab-and-go options, portable foods or to-go containers. Nutrition labels on these options may add to their appeal,” the survey concluded.

The study also looked at attributes that parents say are important when deciding whether or not their children participate in the school lunch program. More than 90% of parents rated taste, quality, nutrition and the number of daily choices as the most important attributes.



Importance Rating (Top 2)Current School Rating (Top 2)
How the food tastes96%53%
Quality of the food95%53%
Availability of healthy/better for you foods92%51%
Choices each day91%53%
Quantity/portion size of the food89%57%
Filling meals/statisfying hunger88%51%
Knowing they will eat what is served88%50%
Variety day to day87%57%
Overall meal experience87%54%
Value for the money86%50%
Service in the cafeteria74%63%
Kitchen staff help64%62%
Menus available to meet allergy/sensitivity requirements53%39%
Information available about the breakfasts48%43%
Availability of vegetarian dishes39%29%
Availability of dishes for ethnic and/or religious needs33%30%

“Clearly, parents value the convenience of school-provided meals over having to pack meals,” the study found. “Schools might increase participation if they bridged the gap in taste and quality. Family involvement in menu ideation, taste testing new dishes and nutritional labeling may go far in gaining parental support.”