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School Lunches

Buying lunch at school might be the first time kids get to call the shots on which foods they’ll eat. School lunches have improved both in taste and nutrition, and many serve healthier dishes, such as grilled chicken sandwiches and salads.

But in the typical school cafeteria, kids can still choose an unhealthy mix of foods often available a la carte or in the vending machine. For instance, a kid might decide to buy a hot dog, day after day.

Lunchtime Opportunities

Use school lunches as a chance to steer your kids toward good choices. Especially with younger kids, explain how a nutritious lunch will give them energy to finish the rest of the schoolday and enjoy after-school activities.

Here are some other tips:

  • Look over the cafeteria menu together. Ask what a typical lunch includes and which meals your kids like. Recommend items that are healthier, but let them buy favorite lunch items once in a while, even if that includes a hot dog.
  • Ask about foods like chips, soda, and ice cream. Find out if and when these foods are available at school.
  • Encourage kids to take a packed lunch, at least occasionally. This can help ensure that kids get a nutritious midday meal.

Healthier Alternatives

Encourage kids to choose cafeteria meals that include fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread instead of white. Also, they should avoid fried foods when possible and choose low-fat milk or water as a drink.

If you’re helping pack a lunch, start by brainstorming foods and snacks that your kids would like to eat. Besides old faves like peanut butter and jelly, try pitas or wrap sandwiches stuffed with grilled chicken or veggies. Try soups and salads, and don’t forget last night’s leftovers as an easy lunchbox filler.

You also can do a lunch makeover. These small changes do make a nutritional difference:

Instead of: Consider:
Higher-fat lunch meats Lower-fat deli meats, such as turkey
White bread Whole-grain breads (wheat, oat, multi-grain)
Mayonnaise Light mayonnaise or mustard
Fried chips and snacks Air-popped popcorn, trail mix, veggies and dip
Fruit in syrup Fruit in natural juices or fresh fruit
Cookies and snack cakes Trail mix, yogurt, or homemade baked goods such as oatmeal cookies or fruit muffins
Fruit drinks and soda Low-fat milk, water, or 100% fruit juice

Healthy Packed Lunches

Prepackaged lunches for kids are popular and convenient, but they’re also expensive and often less than nutritious. Instead, create your own packable lunch using healthier ingredients. You could pack these options in plastic containers, resealable plastic bags, or colorful plastic wrap:

  • cold-cut roll-ups: lean, low-fat turkey, ham, or roast beef with low-fat cheese on whole wheat tortillas
  • cold pizza: shredded mozzarella cheese with pizza sauce on a flour tortilla, whole-wheat pita, English muffin, or mini pizza shell
  • cracker sandwiches: whole-grain crackers filled with low-fat cream cheese or peanut butter and jelly
  • peanut butter and celery sticks
  • veggie sticks with low-fat dip or dressing
  • 100% fruit juice box or bottle of water
  • an optional dessert: yogurt, low-fat pudding, oatmeal raisin cookie, graham crackers, fresh fruit

Check with the school to see if there are any restrictions on what kids can pack in their lunches. And don’t forget to involve your kids in the process so that healthier lunches can become a goal for them too.

Keep Packed Food Safe

A packed lunch carries the added responsibility of keeping the food safe to eat. That means keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold.

To help keep lunch foods safe:

  • Wash your hands before preparing food.
  • Use a thermos for hot foods.
  • Use cold packs or freeze some foods and drinks overnight. They’ll thaw in the lunchbox.
  • Wash out lunch boxes every day or use brown paper bags that can be thrown away or recycled.
  • Pack some moist towelettes to remind kids to wash their hands before eating and to clean up after.