When your child started school earlier this month, your family may have considered whether to buy the school lunch or provide food from home. Or did you automatically opt for one without giving much consideration to the other?
My first job as a dietitian was a research position that entailed traveling the country to collect and process data about the food served in elementary school cafeterias.
In one Chicago suburb, it was considered “uncool” to eat vegetables. Because students were more likely to use vegetables as ammunition for a food fight rather than for consumption, cafeteria supervisors intercepted students coming out of the lunch line and removed the vegetables from their trays before they sat down. I remember looking into a trash can and seeing thousands of peas that were served but never had a chance to be eaten.
In contrast, I visited a Tennessee hill town where they were dealing with the problem of students taking too many vegetables from the self-serve salad bar. I watched cashiers ring up students with one hand and pick off vegetables from their trays with the other hand in order to keep portion sizes in line with system guidelines.
One school I visited here in Massachusetts served soft pretzels as a main course. The school system dietitian explained to me that she wanted to make the lunches in her system healthier, but she was encountering harsh resistance from both parents and principals who cared more about the children eating – period – than they did about providing a healthier option that they feared the kids would reject.
Everywhere I went, I saw students discard or trade away food that their parents had provided from home. Just because you or the cafeteria staff gives your child something to eat does not guarantee that it will make it into his or her mouth, and a school lunch is not inherently more or less healthy than what is brought from home.
As you and your child decide what’s for lunch, consider not just your child’s preferences and health, but also the realities of the cafeteria dynamic. In order to get a glimpse of the latter, think about planning a visit to eat lunch with your child in the cafeteria. I saw parents eating with their children in every single school system that I visited.
Planning ahead is a great strategy for figuring out school lunch. First, I think it’s a good idea to suss out what your child’s school is serving. Most public and private schools have websites nowadays, so looking up the weekly/monthly cafeteria menu shouldn’t be too difficult. If, however, no website exists, talk to the school and they can give you a hard copy of the menu.
If you and your child look at the menu and nothing looks appealing, the next step would be talking with your child about what he or she would like to bring for lunch. Letting your child help in planning and/or putting together lunch will greatly increase the odds that he or she will eat said lunch! Having your child accompany you to the grocery store to pick out lunch foods would be a smart idea as well.
Finally, a lot of my clients feel stuck around what to bring, feeling like sandwiches are the only option. Not true! One can piece together a totally healthy lunch without needing it to be “standard.” For example, hummus and pita, baby carrots, fruit, and milk can make a delicious piecemeal lunch. Another idea could be crackers and cheese, with cut-up peppers, fruit, and a beverage. Bringing leftovers from last night’s dinner, such as a pasta dish, would also work really well.
The bottom line: If your child can be involved in one or all steps in the school lunch process, success will be sure to follow.