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School Bus, School Work… School Lunches!
A new school year is here, and parents everywhere are out with their kids searching for the perfect binder, the perfect outfits, the most awesome pens and pencils and, of course, the coolest lunchbox! When parents think of school, we think learning, but we tend to forget what lunch period represents to the children. We think nutrition; they think socialization. And there lies our dilemma: we have to make sure our children are refueling their little bodies while they are forming friendships and learning social skills. And that takes some creativity!

Lots of things are happening in school cafeterias around the country. Thanks to national concerns about poor eating habits, lack of exercise and too much availability of nutrient-poor foods in schools, many districts are changing lunchtime options. Gone are soda machines during school hours. In many cases, juice, water and milk products are replacing soda. Gone, too, are the chips, candy bars and other high-fat, low-nutrient foods from the cafeteria line. Schools across the country are offering salad bars, fresh fruits and moving away from convenience foods as the main course, substituting them with healthier, kid-friendly options.

The best way to ensure a healthy lunch is to provide one from home, and now is the time to start choosing what your child will take every day. This takes involvement with your kids.

Sit down with them to find out what they really like to eat, and will eat. You may be surprised to find that even though little Mary loves tuna sandwiches at home, she won’t eat them at school because other kids comment on the “fishy smell.” Likewise, peanut butter and jelly might be a staple in Mikey’s diet, but the school has banned it because a student is allergic to peanuts. Ask your child these questions:
  • What would you like to eat?
  • What do you have time to eat?
  • What would make you look forward to eating?
If the answer is “I dunno,” it’s time for a trip to the supermarket! Many children don’t shop with their parents, so they’re unaware of the options. To begin, walk them slowly through the produce aisle and have them choose a few pieces of fruit they think they might like to try. Take them to the deli to see the huge range of options. Let them see the different types of bread varieties available other than sliced, white bread from plastic bags. Purchase small amounts of many choices and practice “dry runs” at home to keep or discard the choices. It’s also important that variety is available so that your student doesn’t lose interest.

During these dry runs, set a timer for the length of the school lunch period, sit with your child and engage in a conversation. If he or she can finish what you have prepared in half the allocated time, you probably have the correct amount of food. Also, allow for time if the child has to go through the lunch line to purchase a beverage.

Each meal should have a protein source, a fresh fruit and/or vegetable and even a healthy dessert, such as raisins or graham cracker sticks. If little Mary can’t finish everything, look at what she’s leaving. Adjust accordingly, but rather than eliminate a food, decrease the size. Perhaps a half sandwich is more appropriate or fewer carrot sticks. Remember, most kids go from lunch to another class, and eating too much will make them drowsy. They don’t need as many calories if there is not an activity period built in to burn off some of that fuel.

For more information about lunchtime options, read the article “Packing the Perfect Lunch” at this website. And remember, lunch doesn’t have to be sandwiches. To keep ideas fresh, keep in touch with your children, find out what the other kids are eating and what new food your children might like to try. Peer acceptance is a very big thing, and the lunchroom is not without its rituals of observing (and admiring) who eats the coolest lunch!

Susan M. Leisner RD, IBCLC, RLC Nutritionist & Lactation Consultant