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6 Healthy Lunch Tips to Shape Up School Meals

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Updated on Jun 23, 2014

Healthy lunch tips don't usually involve pizza as a nutritious option ... yet it's routinely featured as a "vegetable" on your kid's menu. This quirk of the School Lunch Program expired in September 2012 and one Colorado politician wants to make sure it won't return any time soon.

Congressman Jared Polis has proposed reforms—aptly titled the "SLICE Act"—which will allow the USDA to:

  • Accurately count the tomato paste topping as 1/8 of a cup—not the 1/2 cup that somehow qualifies pizza as a veggie;
  • Implement "science-based" sodium reduction targets; and
  • Set a whole-grain requirement

While he recognizes that pizza has a place in school meals, Congressman Polis says that equating it with nutritious vegetables such as broccoli and carrots "seriously undermines" efforts to support child health. Polis also points out that "research shows a clear connection between nutrition and student performance in school."

Nationwide, 20 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 11 are overweight, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control, and schools around the country are attempting to address the problem. But parental intervention and assistance is critical to success.

Schools Taking Action

When the Chula Vista Elementary School District in Southern California learned that children in their schools weren't getting the nutrition they needed, the district began a district-wide height and weight surveillance project in 2011. The research revealed that by first grade, almost half of girls and more than a third of boys were overweight. By sixth grade, more than half of all the children were overweight, and more than a quarter were obese—exceeding the national average.

Dr. Olga West, principal of Veterans Elementary School in Chula Vista, California, says that students' "physical health, and choices they make with food, friends, and fitness all play a part of their well-rounded education." West implemented a variety of health and fitness changes in her school, several of which focused on nutritious overhauls, both inside the cafeteria and out:

  • Healthier lunch options. The school offers a main entrée, fruit, two vegetables and milk or juice each day; stocks a salad bar full of fresh produce, and won't allow flavored milk due to its high sugar content.
  • Nutritious celebrations. West has restricted parents from bringing cakes, cookies, candy and sugared drinks for birthdays.
  • Health and wellness events, such as an A-Z salad bar with a fruit or vegetable for each letter of the alphabet, a health fair, a raffle for completed fitness goals, a walk to school program and participation in community events such as a 5k run and walk.

In April 2012, the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency recognized the school district's efforts at the 11th annual Public Health Champion Awards.

How You Can Help

  • Reinforce the right choices. Don't rely on the school to give your child information about nutritious food—strike up a conversation in the grocery store, at the dinner table, or while you're driving to school. Eating right requires lots of "right" choices, so fill her in on which foods are better than others. Let her know that all food is okay in moderation to avoid guilt associations with food. If she's gaga for pizza, talk together about how you can amp up the nutrition in her favorite dish, such as loading it with fresh veggies instead of pepperoni.
  • Use a catchphrase. CVESD teaches "5-2-1-0" to help the children remember to eat 5 fruits and vegetables per day; keep the television or video games to less than 2 hours a day; get 1 hour of exercise every day and have zero sugary drinks. Make nutrition fun by coming up with your own family catchphrase.
  • Pare down portions. Don't send large bags of chips or cookies—you'd be shocked at the "correct" portion of these snacks. Opt for healthy alternatives, buy individual servings or divide a large bag into several smaller servings.
  • Ask for assistance. At Veterans Elementary, teachers monitor the children's lunches to ensure students take a fruit and vegetable with their lunch entrée, says West. If a child's consistently disinterested in her lunch, "we have a notice that we send parents or we call to let them know." Ask your child's teacher for suggestions if you have similar concerns with your little one's eating habits.
  • Control what you can. You can't be in charge of your child's cafeteria choices, but you can certainly control the options you offer at home. Use fresh foods, and include plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Avoid purchasing fried or fatty foods, limit portions and sugary drinks, and steer clear of the salt.
  • Enlist healthy help. Daina Kalnins, MSc., RD, author of Better Food for Kids and Better Baby Food, suggests letting your child help with meal preparation to keep her engaged in what she's eating. When sending supplemental fruits or veggies to school, Kalnins recommends packing the produce in quality containers with a built-in ice pack, for example, to help ensure these nutritious choices are just as appealing when it's time for lunch. To add an artistic flair to midday meals, get playful with food preparation—carve strawberries into tiny flowers, or skewer grapes on a brightly-colored stick. The more visually appealing the dish, the better!

Getting your kid to make healthy choices at school and the dinner table doesn't have to be a battle. By adopting these nutritious strategies, you'll teach her why eating healthy is preferential—eventually, your words and actions will pay off when she opts for salad over pizza in the cafeteria.

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