What Are Your Kids Having for Lunch?
How to help your children eat healthy at school
By Carol Sorgen
Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD
When it comes to lunches for her kids, Rallie McAllister, MD, has a house rule: "We take our lunch to school. No questions asked."
Getting kids to take a healthy lunch from home is one way to fight the high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium offerings found in many school cafeterias and vending machines, says McAllister, author of Healthy Lunchbox: The Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.
But even McAllister -- a family practice doctor in Kingsport, Tenn., who specializes in nutrition and weight loss -- concedes that in the end, parents have to let kids make a lot of their own food choices. "You can't be completely hard-nosed about this," she says.
The crusade to get children to eat more healthfully during the school day is one that McAllister and other health-care professionals, educators, and parents are serious about -- and with good reason.
Public school lunches must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for nutrition (for example, no more than 30% of their total calories can come from fat). And many schools take pains to make sure their offerings include healthy choices. But that's not necessarily translating to our children eating better at school.
One reason, many experts say, is the "a la carte" items offered alongside the standard school lunch, or sold at in-school snack bars or vending machines (often, proceeds go to help the schools meet their budgets). Further, some physicians' groups believe that the USDA guidelines don't go far enough to ensure that children eat healthfully.
Several recent studies have offered less-than-encouraging news:
All this is despite the fact that poor eating habits in children not only contribute to childhood obesity but also may increase the risk that they will develop certain chronic diseases as adults, experts say. The prevalence of childhood obesity in the U.S. has doubled since the 1970s.
Much as you might like to, you can't follow your children around school all day to make sure they're choosing healthy foods. So what's a parent to do?
McAllister, of course, thinks bringing lunch from home is the best alternative. Not only does this let you decide what they have for lunch, but it also helps keep them away from the vending machines.
"There's no guarantee what the kids will use their lunch money for once they get to school," she says. "You have no control over where that money goes once they leave home."
It's important for kids to have choices, though, she says. So before you pack their lunches or hit the grocery story, ask them what they want: What kind of fruit would they prefer? Which vegetable? What kind of dip? (Kids love to dip, she says; chop broccoli into bite-size pieces and add a container of fat-free dip, and your kids might actually eat their veggies.)
This doesn't mean junk food is an option. "Let the kids have tons of choices, but make sure they're good choices," McAllister says. "A choice between a Ho-Ho and a Ding-Dong is not a choice."
Try to include the five food groups in every lunch, McAllister says: protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods. "Kids don't have a lot of time to eat," she says. "You need to get the most nutrition into them in the least amount of time as possible."