The quality of kids' school lunches varies greatly from school to school, district to district, state to state, country to country. If your child regularly buys lunch at the school cafeteria, is she getting a nutritious noontime meal? Or is her tray loaded with fried, fatty, and/or starchy foods that fill her with empty calories, leaving out the protein, fiber, and vitamins she really needs? (A study of sixth-graders, published in 2013, drew a connection between school lunch consumption and obesity.)
Parents buy kids school lunches out of financial necessity, to save time, or simply because their children ask for cafeteria meals. While systemic change is happening—the U.S. Department of Agriculture made significant changes to school nutrition standards in 2012—you can also take steps today to improve your kids' school lunches and their diet overall.
Talk to Kids About School Lunches
If your child likes to buy lunch at school, review the menu with him and discuss the choices. This is especially important if he chooses from an a la carte line. Ask him about which entrees he likes and why, and whether he eats the side dishes or not (that's where the fruits and vegetables often are). Point out which offerings seem the healthiest, and which ones may be less so. If chicken nuggets are served once a week, does he really need to buy them every time?
Some schools have an online payment system that lets you view exactly what your child purchases; if that's available to you, use it as a starting point for discussion. It's also very helpful to visit the cafeteria yourself if you can. Share a school lunch with your child once or twice a year. There's no better way to get the inside scoop.
You might also offer older kids a financial incentive to get them to pack their own lunches. Give them the choice of buying their lunch, or bringing one from home and pocketing the cash. (This only works if you make sure your child really does pack a lunch!) The same might go for beverages: If she chooses nonfat milk or water, you pay; if she opts for flavored (read: sugar-added) milk, juice, or sports drinks, she pays. For younger kids, you could try a sticker chart or other reward system to help send the message that healthy choices are valuable.
Make Other Choices Count
Kids' school lunches are only part of the nutritional picture. Since it's hard to control what your child eats when he's out of your sight, make the meals that you do provide as healthful as possible. Start the day with a good breakfast, pack nutritious snacks, and end the day with a hearty, healthy family dinner.
Govindan M, Gurm R et al. Gender Differences in Physiologic Markers and Health Behaviors Associated With Childhood Obesity. Pediatrics, Vol. 132 No. 3, September 2013.