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School Lunches

Are school cafeteria lunches healthy?

Some school districts no longer allow sodas and other "high-fat, high-sugar" fast foods and snacks in schools. This includes vending machines and fast food vendors on campus. The amount of salt, sugar, and fat in breakfasts and lunches served at many schools is also changing. Most lunches provide enough calories, carbohydrates, proteins, and milk, but may be high in fat and low in 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 letting your child get fast food or buy from the vending machine. 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 fix my child for lunch?

Packing lunches may seem like it takes too much time when you're in a rush. With a little planning and creativity, you can provide a healthy lunch that doesn’t take a lot of time. If you are a working parent, fixing 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 can go right into the lunch box. 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 or cheese

Many lunch boxes come with a cold pack so that you can safely pack milk and other items that need to stay cold.

It’s also helpful if you:

  • Stay clear of prepackaged lunches. Even if they are labeled low-fat, these products usually have a lot of fat and salt.
  • Think food groups when you pack your child's lunch. 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. Here are some items to include in your shopping list:
    • 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.
    • Fruit: Any fresh fruit in season, applesauce, fruit cocktail cups in natural juice, 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 mixed with granola or low-fat or fat-free 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, sunflower seeds, or chocolate chips. Spending some time during the weekend or on a weeknight to prepare several treats in small, snack size bags can save time, money, and calories compared to pre-packaged treats from the store or a vending machine.
Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-05-29
Last reviewed: 2013-05-28
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.
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