Eat Beat

Parents Can Improve School Meals

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Action for Healthy Kids,

Alliance for a Healthier Generation,


5 Steps for a Healthy Lunch

Whether your child packs or buys lunch, here are some guidelines:

1. Seek balance. Health experts advise including a mix of food groups in each meal: some grains, some fruits, some vegetables, some meat or protein foods and some dairy foods (such as milk, cheese and yogurt).

2. Choose fruits and vegetables.
Five servings of fruits and vegetables every day is the recommendation, so use lunch as a way to fit in one or two portions. A serving isn’t much — for example, six baby carrots or one medium-sized orange.

3. Whole grains reign. When possible, choose whole grain breads, cereals, rice and pasta. For lunch items you prepare at home, the package’s ingredient label’s first item should state “whole.”

4. Some fat is okay. Kids need some fat in their diets to stay healthy, and it helps keep them feeling full, but they shouldn’t eat too much of it. Some higher-fat lunch items include French fries, hot dogs and chicken nuggets; your child should eat them less often and in smaller portions. Healthier foods with fat are peanut butter, nuts and seeds, lean meat and lowfat dairy foods.

5. Rethink the drink. It’s not just about what kids eat. Beverages count too! Milk has been a favorite lunchtime drink for generations, and lunch is a good way to get one serving of the three recommended daily portions. Avoid juice drinks and sodas, which are high in calories.

by Althea Zanecosky

Research indicates that healthy kids learn better; poor eating habits threaten not only their physical health but also their academic achievement.

Studies show that American children older than age 5 eat from 20 to more than 50 percent of their daily food intake at school. And while U.S. schools offer many opportunities for providing nutritious food, parents can get more involved to improve cafeteria programs. Here’s how to give your child’s school dining room a checkup.

Try it out. Eat lunch in the school cafeteria or volunteer to supervise there to find out what choices are offered. Seek answers to these questions:

Is the room attractive to kids?

How much time do they wait in line?

How much time do they have to eat?

What foods are they choosing and what is getting thrown away untouched?

Talk to students about what they like and dislike about eating lunch there. Discuss what you’ve seen with the food service staff. Brainstorm ways to change what isn’t working and offer to take these suggestions to the school administration.

Slow it down. Health researchers have focused on improving the quality of foods served in school cafeterias, but many schools are rushing kids through lunch too quickly.

New studies suggest that wolfing down meals can nearly double a person’s risk of being overweight.

Talk with cafeteria and school personnel, as well as your school’s parent organization, about turning school lunch into a real sit-down meal, rather than a minutes-long eating frenzy.

Ask what you can do.
School can be a very efficient way to affect good health habits. Remember those classroom stop-smoking campaigns where kids would come home and throw parents’ cigarettes away? Parents encouraging cafeteria improvements can have far-reaching

Offer your sweat equity. Can you or the school’s parent group make the cafeteria a more attractive place to eat? Does the space need to be cleaned, painted, or reorganized to add enjoyment to the lunchtime experience?

Investigate outside sources of funds to improve the food environment. Salad bars and attractive milk coolers cost money. Many schools have received corporate or foundation support to help pay for new programs and equipment.

Be an advocate. Get the support of your principal, cafeteria workers, teachers and community members to build a healthy eating and learning environment.

Althea Zanecosky is a Philadelphia registered dietitian and national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.