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Grading Your Child's School Lunch

Posted Apr 24 2009 7:22am

Schools have all sorts of protective measures these days. Drug-Free Zones and Weapons-Free Zones surround the buildings where children spend most of their days, so why no Healthy-Eating Zones or Junk-Food-Free Areas? After all, consuming fatty foods is a major long-term health threat, especially in this country!

Take a look at your child's school lunch menu. You're bound to find chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, hot dogs, French fries, macaroni and cheese, and pizza, among other things. You may as well be feeding your child at a fast-food restaurant every day. Find a few minutes to take a walk through your child's school's cafeteria. Are there vending machines in sight? What's in them? They probably aren't stocked with fruit and mineral water but rather with candy, chips, and soda.

The National School Lunch Program is responsible for feeding hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren around the country every day. The average parent may assume that the kids are being well taken care of in the cafeteria because schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program have to serve meals that adhere to specific dietary guidelines:

  • No more than 30 percent of calories from fat
  • Fewer that 10 percent saturated-fat calories

To find out if your child's school participates in this government program, simply call the school and ask. Schools that don't participate in the program are more likely to have even more unhealthy options (like fast food vendors right in the cafeteria) as a means of cutting costs.

However, many school lunches come processed and ready to be opened, warmed, and fed to the children. You can bet that these foods have fairly high levels of saturated fat to improve taste and shelf life. Most schools also only offer whole or 2 percent milk in their cafeterias. The bottom line regarding school lunches is this: Although the meals may adhere to government guidelines, they could be so much better if they included fresher, greener, truly low-fat options.

The real danger in the cafeteria lies in the a la carte items, like ice cream treats, chips, and soda. These empty-calorie foods do little except make children overweight. The treats, which are sold separately from the school lunches, are a major source of income for schools, which explains why they're within your child's reach.

To find out the nutritional breakdown of your child's school lunch, take the menu to a nutritionist. With a little time, she can evaluate the calorie count of each meal and snack.

Is it impossible to change the way your child's school feeds its pupils? Stranger things have happened, but your voice is more likely to be heard if you can gather up a group of concerned parents before bringing the issue before the school administration. Keep in mind that the National School Lunch Program provides low-cost or free breakfasts and lunches to students who otherwise may not have a morning or noontime meal, so your school district's reluctance to drop the program in favor of healthier (and more expensive) options may legitimately be out of concern for its less fortunate pupils.

So what can you do to help your child eat healthier at school? Let her choose one day a week to buy the school lunch, and make her a healthy lunch from home the other four days. Often, you have no control over how your child spends her lunch money. For all you know, your already overweight child could be purchasing an entire school lunch and four ice cream treats for dessert! When she chooses to buy lunch, send enough money with her to cover the cost of the meal — no extras.

No matter how young your child is, encourage her (with a little guidance, especially for the youngest kids) to make her own healthy choices at mealtimes, whether she's packing a lunch or purchasing one at school. If you pack her lunch in an effort to make low-fat eating as easy as possible for her, she's not really learning anything except that a nutritious meal magically appears in her lunchbox every day. Remember, your ultimate goal is for her to make healthy choices all by herself, and that's something she can learn to do best through hands-on experience.

Don't send your child to school with loads of money! Granted, you can't do much to prevent your teenager from spending her own cash on soda at school, but you can keep money for treats out of the hands of a younger child. And no matter what your child's age, if the school has a prepaid lunch account system, don't put extra money in it! Often, you have no control over what that money buys.

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