Do You Know What Your Child Is Eating At School?

So the question is – how do you make sure your child is eating healthy when they’re away from home (and you)? Over 5 billion lunches are served every year as part of the National School Lunch Program (either free of charge or for purchase in schools). Whether your child takes part or brown bags it, it’s important to familiarize yourself his or her options. Once you know what’s on the menu, so to speak, you can equip your kids to make the healthiest choices.

Here are nine tips to get you started:

  1. Variety is key. Getting not just one fruit or vegetable but a few onto their plates, along with their favorite lunch items, is the way to go. Then swap those out every so often so that your child doesn’t get tired of the same offerings.
  2. Assume the worst. Even though the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) revised school lunch requirements to include smaller portion sizes, low-fat milk and more fruits and vegetables, items like pizza, tacos and potatoes are still available almost every day. Whatever snack you send them to school with should be a healthy one, like an apple, orange slices or carrot sticks. This way, you help counteract those unhealthier choices they might be indulging in.
  3. Ask what’s on the menu. Some schools upload the weekly lunch menu to their websites or even post it on bulletin boards or in parent newsletters. Find out which dishes they’re serving and then…
  4. Choose two. If you can’t pack your child’s lunch every day, try to send him or her to school with a home-packed lunch at least two times a week. That way, you know that at least 40 percent of their week involves parent-approved lunches. If you know your school’s menu, you can even let your kids choose which days they want to buy their lunch. Just don’t be surprised if they choose pizza day!
  5. Get them involved. If you let your kids help make their own lunch, they’ll be more likely to eat it. Their participation makes them more invested in what they’ve packed and less likely to toss it or trade it with a friend.
  6. It’s all about the water. Kids who drink water throughout the day have been shown to have better behavior and concentration. So skip the juice box, and pack a bottle – or two!
  7. Get creative. Try to get away from the sandwich, apple, chips model – kids get bored with it easily. Make time to prepare a healthy wrap, kebabs or have some fun with fruit for a healthy dessert. Sure, it’s more time consuming, but your kids (and their bodies) will thank you for it.
  8. Beware of the vending machine. As kids get older, their access to school vending machine items like salty snacks, candy and sugary, caffeinated drinks increases. Let them know it’s not entirely off limits – that will only increase its appeal – but instead encourage moderation. Still, as much as possible…
  9. Skip the sugarSweets make it hard for kids to focus, which can spell disaster for any afternoon learning session. If they just can’t do without it, urge your kids to save the sweet stuff until after school.

Every school serves different dishes, and it’s pretty close to impossible to track all of the foods your child eats every day. But you can send kids to school armed with healthy options. Changing things up, informing yourself and encouraging good habits at home will help make sure that kids are eating smarter when they’re away. And that’s much easier to swallow than the alternative.