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School Lunches

Are school cafeteria lunches healthy?

School cafeteria lunches are starting to improve in both taste and nutrition. Most lunch programs provide enough calories, carbohydrates and proteins, and milk, but often school lunches are too high in fat and lack fruit, vegetables, and fiber.

Children who have choices may choose the higher fat items and skip vegetables. Go through the menus with your child. Teach your kids about healthy foods and making good choices.

Buying a monthly lunch pass can save you time, cost less, and be healthier than the vending machine or fast food items that many kids choose. It can work well if your children eat in the cafeteria some days, bring lunch from home other days, and sometimes use lunch money to make their own choices.

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

Packing lunches can seem like too much work or take too much time, especially when you're in a rush. With a bit of planning 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 you pack your child's lunch, think food groups. Try to include some form of protein, starch, milk or yogurt, fruit, and vegetables. You don't have to include all the food groups every day.
  • Make a shopping list for school lunch items and keep these items on hand. 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 healthy. Use plastic sandwich bags, plastic containers, and colorful wrap. You don't have to pack a 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 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. If you save leftovers that your child would enjoy, put them in single-serving containers. That way they can go right into the lunch box.

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

School districts around the country are working to ban sodas and other "high-fat, high-sugar" fast foods and snacks in schools. The amount of salt, sugar, and fat in breakfasts and lunches served at many schools is also being reviewed.

Many states have laws that limit or ban trans fat in foods served in schools. This includes vending machines.

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. However, many kids eat too many calories, too much fat, and gain extra weight. Encourage your PTA to work with local vendors to offer healthier choices.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-07-06
Last reviewed: 2011-07-05
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.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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