With pressure from parents and government agencies in recent years, school districts have worked to pack more nutrition and taste into lunches. The makeover began with the passage of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, which required schools to add more fresh fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the menu.
Despite the improvements, parents still face the dilemma of deciding whether to pack or let their kids buy. Buying a lunch is the quickest, most convenient option, though it does not ensure your child will eat a balanced meal. For example, picky eaters might choose to chuck the mandated fruits and vegetables into the garbage. Likewise, kids with severe allergies or diabetes will fare better bringing their own lunches. However, if school lunches appeal to your youngster and suit your budget, they are definitely worth considering.
Dietitians recommend that parents read through the school menu with their children and discuss the options ahead of time so kids can learn about different foods and how to make good choices that ensure a balanced meal. This is particularly important for young children attending schools that require them to select their fruits and vegetables from a salad bar. Explain to your children that while they might like croutons, a heaping tray of the crusty carbohydrates will not provide sufficient nutrition for an afternoon of learning and playing.
At the beginning of the school year, make a point to join your child for lunch one day so you can see how the cafeteria operates. This will allow you to talk your child through the process and see if they have enough time to actually eat their meal after going through the lunch line.
If you decide to pack your child a lunch, be sure to take advantage of the teaching opportunity as well. Have your child tag along to the grocery store—or farmers market—to help choose lunch items. This will give you the opportunity to talk about food options and why some choices are better than others. A balanced lunch includes fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, a calcium source and high-fiber grains.
You also want to make sure the food is ready-to-eat and easy to handle. Time for lunch is limited, so keep the foods simple and accessible. Pre-peel and cut the fruits and vegetables, and use containers that are easy to open for your child.
Consider letting your child buy milk at school instead of packing a sugary juice. The Journal of Child Nutrition and Management reported that children who drank milk at lunch were more likely to meet daily calcium intake guidelines than children drinking other beverages. Likewise, for children buying lunches, be sure to speak to them about the importance of finishing that last drop of milk in the carton.
When deciding whether to pack or buy, be sure to take your family’s schedule into consideration. Some days you might want your child to buy a lunch, while on other days you might find ample time to pack a nutritious meal. Whatever the choice, the most important thing is to keep the food conversation rolling. Remind your children that lunch will fuel their tank for the afternoon. Whatever they place on their lunch tray or into their lunchbox will end up in their body. Help them make healthy, well-rounded choices for a healthy, well-rounded day.