Healthy School Lunches -- Debra Wein, MS, RD -- 03/13/03

By Debra Wein
WebMD Live Events Transcript

It's noon. Do you know what your kids are eating? School lunch programs have come under fire for having vending machines and cafeterias loaded with lots of high-fat, high-sugar meal choices. But your child can still make healthy choices. Debra Wein, MS, RD, joined us to discuss how.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live Our guest today is nutrition expert Debra Wein, MS, RD. Hello Debra. Thank you for joining us today. When we send our children off to school, what are the key elements we should have in their lunch box?

Wein: I think that we need to provide our children with foods that they're comfortable with. We need to provide these foods in the appropriate portion sizes and we need to make sure that we're giving them enough food for their lunches as well as any snacks that they will be eating. We need to provide our children with healthy foods that are not very high in sugar, fat, or sodium. Foods such as:

  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Low-fat dairy products
  • Lean meats
  • High-fiber grains

These are all worthwhile choices. If we send our children with high-sugar items or high-fat items, then we're not going to help them learn about healthy food choices, nor are we going to help them learn effectively while they're at school. Very often parents send high-fat, high-sugar items and unhealthy foods because that's what the children seem to prefer. As parents, it's our responsibility to teach our children and to help them appreciate the importance of eating healthy foods.

Moderator: I've seen more apples and oranges in the trash in school cafeterias. Whole fruits are healthy and easy to pack, but often wasted. Do you have any tips for getting kids to eat their fruit; what could we be packing that they would eat?

Wein: Sending fruits to school, or vegetables for that matter, that continuously aren't being eaten is something we need to think about. Is it that we are sending along too much food? Are the children opting for other snacks from the vending machine? Or are they eating the chips or chocolate bars that we're sending along in the lunchbox as well?

Getting children to eat fruits and vegetables is really the responsibility of the parent. Making food enjoyable is the best way to teach our children to eat healthy. While older children might appreciate the argument that these foods are good for you, children of all ages will eat foods that they find enjoyable and tasty. As parents, reintroducing healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables on a regular basis is a key factor in helping our children to learn to eat these foods.

Children will learn to eat the foods that we offer to them. As a matter of fact, children learn and love to eat beans; that includes black beans, kidney beans, and chickpeas -- all good sources of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. So these foods are very nutritious, but they can also be fun because they are colorful and they are finger foods.

Getting back to our fruits that are being thrown away, we might try to find out from our children why that is the case. Instead of packing whole fruits, we could try something such as apple ring sandwiches, which are peanut butter on apple rings; or we could send along some tangerine sections or chunks of banana or pineapple or even a juice box that has 100% juice. As far as veggies go, we can get creative and send along a pack of colorful cherry tomatoes or vegetable sticks, such as carrots, celery, peppers, cucumbers, or even squash. And again, I would try some of these newer foods at home first, because we want to know that our children are acquainted with and like these foods. Sometimes, as frustrating as it might be, we may need to introduce a certain food even 10 to 12 times.

Looking at the grains group, and thinking about what to send in our lunch box, we could send mini rice cakes, which are flavored, or some popcorn cakes as snacks instead of the high-fat, high-sugar chips and chocolate bars. We could send graham crackers, ginger snaps, fig bars, or even ready-to-eat cereals.

Member: Yes, we can send them but if they are not eaten at home (always offered) why would they eat them at school?

Wein: I agree that we do not want to send foods to school that our children are not eating at home. We also cannot expect to change our children's eating patterns or overall diet in just one day. Again, we need to try to focus on introducing healthy foods and options on a regular basis, so that these foods become more familiar to our children. As parents, we need to serve as role models for our children. We cannot expect our children to limit their chip and soda intake, if that's what he or she is seeing at home. So modeling becomes an important tool to teach children about healthy nutrition.

The same holds true for exercise and physical fitness. It's important for parents who are concerned about their children's diet to take a look at the overall intake of each child over four to seven days, rather than being concerned that a child's diet may be inadequate over the course of one day. I typically recommend that parents look at the diet on a larger scale, which is, again, typically over the course of one week.

When trying to introduce children new foods, how we react to the foods, how other members of the family react to the foods all effect our child's perception of that food. For instance, if you are trying to serve green beans one evening for dinner and your older child makes a face, how likely do you think your younger child will be to accept this food? What I typically recommend is that we ask our children to try just one bite of eat new food. I suggest this each time a food is newly presented or reintroduced. This way, children can become acquainted with a variety of foods and will, therefore, become more familiar with them. This is likely to increase their acceptance of these healthy foods.

I think parents are often amazed at some of the foods that their children are willing to eat over time. One other method of increasing acceptance to new food, which I typically suggest to parents, is to provide the new food in the correct portion size. Children do not eat huge portions, so trying to give them an adult-sized portion, especially of a food they are unfamiliar with, will likely mean it will not be eaten.

Member: My 6-year-old would rather eat canned fruits than fresh ones. Should I just be happy that he's eating fruit and not worry about the fact that it's not fresh?

Wein: Great question. I think that eating some fruit is much better than eating no fruit. As you have already suggested, eating fresh fruit is preferable to canned fruit, but what you can do is choose canned fruits that are canned in their juice, rather than those which are canned in light syrup or even heavy syrup. Similarly, as we have been talking about reintroducing fresh fruit on a regular basis may increase your child's acceptance of these foods. There is such a huge variety of colorful fruits and vegetables that come in such a diverse array of shapes and sizes that I hope, with continued exposure, your child will vary his or her preferences.

Member: In our house, every healthy food is offered, correct portion size and they will just refuse. I feel guilty that they could go to bed hungry.

Wein: We don't want children to go to bed hungry, but we can also not become short-order cooks. What you might try is offering a choice of two options for dinner, and allowing your child to choose one of the two options. As you've always heard, a child will eat when he/she is hungry. And if on one occasion, he/she eats less for dinner than you might like, he/she is likely to make up for those calories the next day.

Member: I believe that all portion sizes are warped these days. What is a reasonable portion size for an elementary-school age child?

Wein: Great question! In our society, where everything is supersized and getting larger, it does become important for parents to consider the portions they are offering their young child. I can provide some general guidelines on the different foods groups and what typical portion sizes are:

  • In the grains group, one serving is the equivalent of one-half slice of bread, one-quarter of a cup of cereal, or one-quarter of a cup of pasta.
  • For fruits, we're looking at something as little as two tablespoons or a quarter-cup of juice, with no more than four to eight ounces of juice per day, or one-quarter to a half of a medium portion of fruit, such as an apple, orange, or banana.
  • Similarly, for our veggies we are looking at approximately two tablespoons or a quarter-cup serving.
  • For the milk or dairy group, one serving is the equivalent of one half of a cup of low-fat milk or yogurt, or one ounce of cheese. Children above the age of 2 can take in low-fat versions of foods, whereas, under 2 should be given whole milk and regular fat foods.
  • For the meat, fish, and poultry group, one serving is equal to one ounce of meat, fish, chicken, or turkey, or one tablespoon of peanut butter, one-half of an egg, or two tablespoons of cooked beans.

Just as we would with adults, children may choose more than one portion at one sitting, but with children it's worthwhile to offer smaller portions and have the child ask for more if he/she is still hungry.

Member: Do you have any tips for children who have dietary restrictions, like red food dye or gluten?

Wein: Children with special dietary needs should really sit down with a professional to help ensure that his or her requirements are met. Children who have food allergies or intolerances who choose vegetarian diets or are very active should meet with a registered dietician one on one.

Member: I am completely out of ideas for "main courses" for my daughter's lunches. We send her lunch to school, so it has to be a cold lunch and she won't eat lunch meats. Any ideas for jazzing up the selections?

Wein: Absolutely. Sending lunch doesn't necessarily have to be all about lunch meat. How about your old standby of PB and J, or leftovers from the night before, which can travel well in refrigerated lunch bags, which are now readily available. Things such as yogurt, salads with beans, tuna, or chicken, could also be healthful substitutes. Sting cheese or low-fat cheese sandwiches on a variety of bread could be a safety snack. A container of whole-grain cereal with milk could also be a lunch treat.

I think being creative just means thinking out of the box. Sometimes I suggest parents use two different kinds of bread in one sandwich. To add a little more fun, I suggest they use a cookie cutter in a fun shape, cut out the shape from each of the bread slices, and replace them in the opposite slice. This works great when using a wheat bread and white bread or a white bread and a rye bread. This also introduces children who might only prefer white bread to a variety of different breads and grains.

Moderator: A wide-mouth thermos is great for taking hot leftovers, if you can count on your child to bring it home! From personal experience, never pack any container you want back in a paper lunch sack.

Wein: Hummus is another cold choice that you can send with your child, whether it's with cut-up veggies or on pita. Many children find this a tasty and healthy alternative to lunch meat.

Member: What type of good, healthy foods naturally appeal to teens?

Wein: That's a great question. I think it's important to treat each teen as an individual and an adult. What appeals to one might completely turn off another. I think that teenagers are now old enough to understand how foods can affect their health, their appearance, and, of course, their sports performance. Teens, like adults, should be able to choose healthy foods on a regular basis, but not be expected to follow what one might consider a "perfect" diet.

Things like wraps, burritos, and sandwiches can all be filled with a huge variety of healthy options. These are fun things that you can even do at home. You can have a sort of assembly line of healthy ingredients that your teen and even younger children can put together based on their preferences. Just like we were saying with our younger children, teens need to be exposed to healthy options for all of their meals.

Snacking is a great way to improve a teenager's diet. If you can affect what your teen is choosing for snacks then you're going to potentially make a large impact on their overall choices. When introducing teenagers to healthy snacks, whether it be fruits, low-fat granola bars, yogurt, pretzels, baked chips, a half of a peanut butter sandwich, the bottom line is that a few healthy snacks can help affect their overall diet. We know that teenagers require so many calories to fuel their growing bodies, so snacks are usually important in their diet. Providing healthy choices, or even educating our teens about healthy choices, are worthwhile tasks.

Moderator: Sometimes condiments can make all the difference in the world to the teen eater. I know one who will eat anything if he can put hot sauce on it, and another who will eat anything he can put catsup on. It isn't always fun to watch, but if it gets them to eat veggies, healthy sandwiches and casseroles, so be it!

Member: School cafeterias seem to be pretty meat-centric. Is there any way for a vegetarian junior-high student to get the right nutrition from a school cafeteria?

Wein: As a vegetarian, it's important to make sure that you are choosing a well-rounded diet. Very often, vegetarians simply omit foods or food groups without realizing the nutrients they maybe lacking. Good for you for trying to be knowledgeable about your choices. I'll give you some suggestions of vegetarian options I've seen at many cafeterias.

If you don't find some or any of these, speak with the food service director at your school. I am confident that you are not alone in your choices. As an advocate for a vegetarian diet, you will likely find other students will follow suit and that the school cafeteria may begin to provide some additional vegetarian foods.

Look for bean soups, cooked with vegetable stock, of course, veggie burgers, colorful mixed salads with beans or tofu on top as a healthy source of protein, burritos or vegetable fajitas are delicious vegetarian options, and if you get stuck, a peanut butter and jelly on whole-wheat bread, or yogurt, if you eat low-fat dairy, and fruits can all make up a delicious meal.

Many cafeterias provide salad bars with foods such as roasted veggies, beans, and hummus. You might need to be creative, but again, being an advocate for your needs will surely help you get just what you need at lunch. Good luck.

Member: My teenager simply refuses to eat lunch. I've been encouraging her to eat some yogurt and bagel with peanut butter when she gets home from school. Is this a decent substitute?

Wein: Absolutely. A 3 o'clock late lunch is much better than not eating lunch at all. Your suggestions are excellent and I hope your teen will continue to listen.

Moderator: Debra, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Wein: Thanks to all of our readers and to those who submitted questions. I enjoyed our time together. I hope that thinking about healthy nutrition can translate into healthy choices on our plates. Good luck to you all and your children.

Moderator: Our thanks to Debra Wein, and thank you, members, for joining us today.

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