Tips for Smart Eating in the School Lunchroom
As a new school year begins, families are encouraged to have ongoing conversations with their children about what they’re eating or not eating at lunch.
By Jean Yaeger
Nutrition experts at Cook Children’s want parents to know that lunch in the school cafeteria presents unique challenges and opportunities for students to form healthy eating habits.
First, the challenges …. Foods that some kids don’t like or won’t try. Too little time to eat. Vending machines. And famished kids and teens who skip lunch and go home so hungry they eat meal-sized snacks after school.
And the opportunities …. Appropriate portion size. Attractive options. Nourishment helps students concentrate in the classroom, power through PE, and hit their growth milestones.
As the 2022-2023 academic year gets underway with new lunch routines, families are encouraged to have ongoing conversations with their children about what they’re eating or not eating. Best practices will incorporate vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains in every meal. Getting your child’s input on preferences can help make the most out of their lunch period.
“Look at the menu ahead of time and make a plan so that they’re being mindful about eating veggies and other healthful foods,” said Kathryn Wheeler, D.O. at Cook Children’s Pediatrics Clearfork. “Preparation will help empower the kids to make good choices.”
Lunch Line Options
The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reported that youth between 2-18 years old get almost half of their daily calories from added sugars and solid fats in sodas, fruit drinks, desserts, pizza and whole milk. The National School Lunch Program sets limits on sodium, saturated fat and calories. Five components are included in school-served lunches:
- Fruits (fresh, frozen, dried or canned in light syrup or juice)
- Vegetables including dark green, red/orange, beans or peas (fresh, frozen or canned)
- Meat or meat alternatives such as beans
- Low-fat milk
Registered dietitian Lauren Williams works in the Risk Evaluation to Achieve Cardiovascular Health (REACH) program, which serves children and teens with high cholesterol, lipids disorders, diabetes and obesity at the Cook Children’s Endocrine Clinic. Williams sometimes hears complaints about school lunch from her patients.
“They might only eat the fruit because they don't really like the main entree, or they might only eat the main entree because the vegetables are overcooked or unappealing,” she said. ‘They might only like one or two components out of the five that are served. And if they don’t supplement with something from home, they may be left hungry.”
Another concern is inadequate time to eat lunch, which forces children to eat so quickly that they don’t respond to the fullness cues sent from the stomach to the brain. In a hurry, they overeat.
“What they're being inherently taught by having 10 minutes to eat is ‘I have to eat this quickly because if I don't eat right now, I don't eat,’” Williams said. This may also lead to the habit of eating quickly at other meals. Or if their lunch break happens at 10:45 am, they might be hungry and overindulge in snacks later in the afternoon.
Williams recommends that parents talk to their children about what they ate at school. Bonus points if this is a conversation had around the dinner table since family dinners are another important part of healthy eating. If they’re not liking what the cafeteria serves, then bring a lunch from home.
Consider making sandwiches, wraps, pasta or salads. Include a protein (such as turkey or ham, cheese, Greek yogurt, beans or nuts); a starch (beans or whole-grain bread or tortillas); and fruit and vegetables for fiber (carrots, celery sticks, bell peppers, apple slices). Williams also suggests a side of hummus or a dip to keep things fun and entice kids to eat more vegetables.
“It doesn't have to be fancy,” she said. “It just has to fill their tummy with some nutrition to get them through the day.”
More back-to-school advice from the dietitian:
- Rely on familiar favorite foods. “If you know that your 8-year-old is perfectly fine with having carrots most days with lunch, then that's OK,” Williams said.
- Ask your child about anything that might make them apprehensive in the cafeteria environment, especially on a new campus. Normalize the discussion of their lunch routine. “Don't be too hard on your kids if they don't choose the broccoli or green beans. Find out why.”
- Keep a handy stash of nutritious foods for after-school snacks. Her top picks include peanut butter crackers, non-fat yogurt, cut-up veggies and low-fat cheese sticks. Keep in mind that snacks should bridge the gap until dinner and not be meal-sized portions.
“You can't always guarantee that a child is going to choose fruit over a cupcake or cookie, but having it there and accessible makes it a whole lot more likely,” she said.
At annual check-ups with her patients, Dr. Wheeler talks with children and families about the benefits that come from consuming the right foods. She emphasizes the role that nutrition can play in preventing diseases down the road, one small step at a time, such as eating less processed foods and more fresh produce.
“We know that all those good habits they have in childhood lay the foundation for a healthy lifestyle as they grow up,” she said. “Parents can be such great models.”
About Cook Children's
Cook Children’s Health Care System embraces an inspiring Promise – to improve the health of every child through the prevention and treatment of illness, disease and injury. Based in Fort Worth, Texas, we’re proud of our long and rich tradition of serving our community. Our not-for-profit organization is comprised of nine companies, including our Medical Center, Physician Network, Home Health company, Northeast Hospital, Pediatric Surgery Center, Health Plan, Health Services Inc., Child Study Center and Health Foundation. With more than 60 primary, specialty and urgent care locations throughout Texas, families can access our top-ranked specialty programs and network of services to meet the unique needs of their child. For 100 years, we’ve worked to improve the health of children from across our primary service area of Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise counties. We combine the art of caring with leading technology and extraordinary collaboration to provide exceptional care for every child. This has earned Cook Children’s a strong, far-reaching reputation with patients traveling from around the country and the globe to receive life-saving pediatric care. For more information, visit cookchildrens.org.