School Lunch: What Are Your Kids Having for Lunch? (cont.)

Several recent studies have offered less-than-encouraging news:

  • A 2003 study by University of California-San Diego researchers found that middle school students were taking in too much fat at school. The researchers estimated that the average student was consuming 26 total grams of fat at school -- although a healthy figure would be more like 20 grams. Some of this extra fat came from snack items sold in vending machines and student-run stores. But the study also found that the average cafeteria-cooked lunch had 31 grams of fat, compared with only 21 grams found in lunches students brought from home.
  • A May 2004 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found that vending machines in public schools are stocked mostly with high-fat snacks and sugary drinks and may be undercutting federal efforts to improve the nutritional quality of school meals. The researchers looked at more than 1,400 school vending machines. They found that 75% of beverages offered in the machines were high-sugar sodas and imitation fruit juices, and 80% of the available snack foods were candies, chips, or sweet baked goods.
  • A March 2004 study by Baylor College of Medicine researchers found that when children moved up to middle school from elementary school, they started consuming less fruit, milk, and vegetables, and more sweetened drinks and high-fat vegetables (like french fries). The snack bars often found in middle schools might be part of the reason, the researchers say.

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."