School cafeterias are notorious for offering less-than-healthy fare. Even when healthy options are on the menu, kids will often overlook them in favor of the greasy, sugary, blood-sugar-spiking and artery-clogging alternatives. And no responsible adult at your child's school will personally guide him in making healthy choices as he moves through the food line.
According to the University of Michigan Health System, studies show that children who eat healthy lunches, with limited amounts of sugar, actually tend to learn better. So, hot dogs and fries aside, how can parents help their kids make healthier choices at the lunch line?
Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietician and spokesperson for the American Dietetics Association, says "I think it's important for the parents to know what's being served. They should see the menu. I think what you want to instill in the child is to balance the meals, with a protein source, a vegetable source, etc. If they're going to eat off the a la carte menu, the parents need to sit down with the child and figure out what they'll pick." Many schools do send lunch menus home, or will make them available upon request, so parents can get involved pretty easily.
Alan Gass, MD, a member of the Healthcorps Advisory Panel, agrees that parents have the responsibility to teach kids healthy habits. According to Gass, learning healthy eating habits "has so much to do with education and lifestyle" – and parents should set the example.
Here are some simple tips that parents (and kids) can keep in mind when choosing lunch—or any other meal.
Brown is beautiful. Go with whole grains. Encourage your child to replace refined white-flour products with whole grain ones as much as possible. That means ham and cheese on wheat. But sandwich bread is far from the only option. Whole grain pita may be available, as well as wraps, bagels, crackers or even healthful muffins.
Add fruits and veggies. The more the better. Fresh is best, but canned or frozen will do if necessary. Gass says "anything that is crude or raw is good for you, therefore eat all vegetables and fruit."
Pack some protein. Include some protein at lunchtime, not just carbs, to provide lasting energy. This can take many different forms - sandwich fillings like peanut or other nut-butters, lean meats, tuna, and cheeses. Cottage cheese, string cheese, or yogurt may be available, and are also good protein choices.
Fluids are important too. Suggest your child pass on the sugar-laden 'fruit cocktails' and 'fruit-flavored' beverages in favor of water, milk, or 100% fruit juice.
Healthy lunches are more likely to get eaten if kids are involved with planning them. Talk about healthy options with your child, and explain why it's important to have a healthy lunch—it helps them feel better, think better, and have more energy. Salge Blake adds, "Making sure you're educating the child as far as better choices go. I think parents underestimate [childrens'] interest in food; kids love to cook. Get them involved."