What's in Your School Lunch?

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Back to school season is a time for new experiences. Beginning a new school year brings excitement, anxiety, and new opportunities.

As a parent, each school year brings new joys and concerns. It is important for parents to know who their child chooses as friends because we, as parents, cannot choose friends for them. We must rely on our influence and guidance at home to help them be wise about who they befriend.

We also cannot choose how our children will eat; again, the only thing we can do is influence and guide. I've had clients who have asked me to come into their home and do an eating intervention with their family. There was little, if any, guidance in regards to healthier eating and serving balanced meals. The family's eating had become so unhealthy it was negatively affecting everyone. As a family, they wanted to incorporate healthier eating patterns. Through the process they realized that there are many contributing factors to an unhealthy lifestyle: lack of time, lack of focus on eating healthier, and planning meals everyone likes are certainly a few.

"As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet," said First Lady Michelle Obama. "And when we're putting in all that effort the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria. When we send our kids to school, we expect that they won't be eating the kind of fatty, salty, sugary foods that we try to keep them from eating at home. We want the food they get at school to be the same kind of food we would serve at our own kitchen tables."

But as the professional who enters these American homes, I see first-hand how many families really eat. I can tell you that often the entire family eats fatty, salty, sugary foods as their main diet. Just walk through your grocery store or big box stores, and see what is in the American grocery cart. Drive down any main street in America and count the fast food restaurants that are side by side. Somebody is making these business owners wealthy. Our American children and families are accustomed to eating this type of food at home. While we blame childhood obesity on school lunch programs, and that is part of the issue, I think the emphasis needs to be healthier food options in the home as well.

The guidelines for school lunches set forth by Michele Obama, are as follows:

  • Ensuring students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
  • Substantially increasing offerings of whole-grain-rich foods
  • Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties
  • Limiting calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size
  • Increasing the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium

These are healthy guidelines, but if the family does not follow them at home, how can a child be expected to embrace them in school? The reality is you can never force a child to eat something he or she does not want, just as you cannot choose their friends for them.

Making kids healthy eaters needs to be a joint project between home and school. I understand at times this is hard to implement, but I believe other healthy eating guidelines ought to be followed at home:

  • Be involved. Encourage and educate your child to eat healthy, by eating healthy yourself.
  • Each child in the family may be a different size. Never focus on the size of one child and ask one child in the family to eat differently than the others. Encourage the entire family to eat and be healthy.
  • Eating healthier options does not cost more! Compare the price of in-season fresh produce with the cost of boxed and frozen prepared dinners that are high in sodium, preservatives, and sugar.
  • Send your child to school with food that they enjoy and that will keep them satisfied. An enjoyable lunch consisting of good nutrition will help them focus on learning. Make sure they have protein items along with carbohydrates. The protein will keep them satisfied while providing nourishment, and the carbohydrates will give them energy and stamina. All fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates, along with bread and grains.
  • Give your child a nourishing and satisfying snack at the end of the school day. Try a sandwich rather than sweets or a prepackaged snack.

Include your child's input in their eating choices. Have them help make food decisions, and if necessary, mix and match their choices with healthier options. Keep in mind that kids like what they are accustomed to eating, and it's what they eat the majority of the time that matters. This healthier lifestyle education will be more influential when done in the family, and then carried into the school cafeterias.

This can be the school year of new opportunities and healthier food choices all leading to continued success and good health... for you and your child.