The start of the school year brings many decisions for parents and children: what to wear, how to get to and from school and even what to have for lunch. Because packing a lunch is not always an option, an expert at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital offers advice to parents on how to talk to kids about making healthy choices in the cafeteria line.
“Discussing school lunches is a great opportunity for parents and children to talk about healthy food choices and what goes into a healthy meal,” said Dr. Karen Cullen, professor of pediatrics at Baylor and the CNRC.
Cullen said that all schools publish their menus online, so parents and children can review these together to decide which days to buy lunch and which days to pack a lunch. Many school districts even have apps that parents can download to view the school lunch menus and the nutrition composition information of these items.
School lunches consist of a choice of an entrée, often with a grain component, a choice of one fruit, two vegetables and a carton of milk.
“It’s a chance to talk about what’s in a healthy meal – something from every major food group: a protein, a starchy food, fruits, vegetables and something from the dairy group,” said Cullen.
Children can usually choose their entrée, fruits and vegetables from a selection, which empowers them to make healthy food choices when their parents are not there with them.
However, because many schools also sell other items in the snack bar, Cullen said parents should talk to children about navigating through these extra foods.
Snack bars do contain fruit, vegetable and whole grain options, but parents can discuss the additional cost of these items with children as well as the importance of eating their main meal first.
Cullen also suggests parents go to the school to have lunch with their children to see what types of options are available.
While parents don’t have control over what their kids eat at school, they can spark a discussion about their lunch when the child comes home. For example, asking how they liked a specific item.
In some states, including Texas, schools have started highlighting foods that are grown in that state. So if new foods come up when reviewing the menu, parents can suggest that they try it and ask how they liked it when their child comes home from school.