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School Lunches

Are school cafeteria lunches healthy?

School cafeteria lunches seem to be improving in both taste and nutrition. They usually provide adequate calories, sources of carbohydrate and protein, and always include milk. Unfortunately, school lunch programs are not perfect. In some areas, the lunches are still too high in fat and lacking in fruit, vegetables, and fiber. Your children also have choices and may choose the higher fat items and skip vegetables. It is wise to go through the cafeteria menu with your child so that you both can decide on which days it would be best to buy lunch. Buying a monthly lunch pass can save you time, be less expensive, and is a more nutritious option than the vending machine or fast food items that many kids choose every day. Offering your children a combination of eating in the cafeteria, bringing lunch from home, and occasionally giving them lunch money to make their own choices works well. Going through the menus and offering other choices, helps teach your kids about different foods and making good choices.

What should I include in my child's packed lunch?

Packing lunches can seem like too much work or be too time consuming, especially when you're in a rush. With a bit of preplanning and by following the tips below, you'll be surprised how easy putting together a healthy and tasty school lunch can be.

  • Stay clear of prepackaged lunches. Even if they are labeled low-fat, these products usually contain extra fat and salt.
  • When packing your child's lunch -- think food groups. Try to include some form of protein (lean meats, cheese, beans, nuts), starch (breads, crackers), milk or yogurt, fruit, and vegetables. You don't have to include all the food groups every day.
  • Good nutrition can be measured over the course of a few days. Make a shopping list for school lunch items and have these items on hand throughout the week. Ask your children to help so you will send foods they will actually eat.

Shopping list ideas

  • Protein: Tuna, peanut butter, sliced turkey and chicken breast, sliced ham or lean roast beef, low-fat cheese slices, mozzarella cheese sticks, hummus, meatless chili, or eggs for hard boiling.
  • Starch: Whole wheat bread for sandwiches, low-fat crackers, pita, rice cakes, breadsticks, or pretzels. It is recommended that half of the grains we eat everyday should be whole grains.
  • Fruit: Any fresh fruit in season, applesauce, fruit cocktail cups, or 100% fruit juice boxes.
  • Vegetables: Carrot sticks, cherry tomatoes, green and red pepper strips, celery with peanut butter or light cream cheese spreads, broccoli and cauliflower flowerets with light dressing, vegetable soup (in thermos), low salt vegetable juice.
  • Milk and yogurt: Yogurt with a small bag of granola to mix or low-fat or fat-free white or flavored milk. (Ovaltine chocolate milk mix offers flavor as well as added vitamins and minerals.)
  • Treats: Fat-free pudding, gelatin, graham crackers, vanilla wafers, baked chips, or popcorn. You can also make a homemade trail mix with dried fruits (raisins, dried cranberries, apples, apricots), pretzels, Chex cereal, nuts, or sunflower seeds. For a treat add some chocolate chips or M&M's.

Be creative

Your kids will have fun making their lunches tasty and nutritious. Use plastic sandwich bags, plastic resealable containers, and colorful wrap. You don't have to send the traditional sandwich. Instead you could send:

  • A slice of cheese pizza
  • Lean meat and cheese with vegetables rolled up in a tortilla
  • Crackers with tuna
  • String cheese.

Many of the new lunch boxes come with a cold pack so that you can safely pack milk and other items that need to stay cold. If you are a working parent, preparing lunches the night before can really help during the morning time crunch. When saving leftovers that your child would enjoy, put them in single-serving containers that can go right into the lunch box.

What can I do about vending machines and fast food vendors at school?

School districts in California and many other states are working to ban sodas and other "high-fat, high-sugar" snacks from schools. The amount of salt, sugar, and fat in breakfasts and lunches served at many schools is also being reviewed. Getting rid of the vending machines and fast food isn't a simple decision. The sale of these products often fund specific school programs or are a big part of the school's revenue. When first proposed, having outside vendors in schools looked like a win-win situation. However, many of our kids are eating too many calories, too much fat, and gaining extra weight. Encourage your PTA to work with local vendors to offer healthier choices.

Written by Terri Murphy, RD, CDE for McKesson Provider Technologies.
Published by McKesson Provider Technologies.
Last modified: 2006-10-10
Last reviewed: 2006-08-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright 2006 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved.
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