This week, October 10-14th, is National School Lunch Week. Whether your children take lunches from home or buy them at school, it’s a great opportunity to review the nutritional content of their lunches.
To cover this topic, I consulted one of my colleagues, Veronica Junghahn. Veronica interacts with countless schools as she helps our team incorporate nutritional components into our program. Veronica is also pursuing a master’s degree in public health at Columbia University; she’s very knowledgeable and very busy!
As Veronica pointed out, more schools and districts have begun to focus on providing healthy meals. This has been driven partly by the increased data tying proper nutrition to improved academic performance and reduced behavioral issues. The significant growth in childhood obesity over the past thirty years has also been a huge factor. If we can get kids on the right path early, with healthy meals and nutritional education, we can make a lifelong difference. Conversely, studies have shown that children who don’t have access to consistent healthy meals in kindergarten, fall behind their peers in reading and math by third grade.
What Can We Do At Home?
At the school level, many districts work with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and/or the School Nutrition Association (SNA). Here are a few ideas that you can pursue at home to improve kids’ meals and teach them about healthy choices:
Expose your children to nutritional activities. You can invent your own games (e.g., “Spot the healthy food”) or use activities from others to promote healthy lifestyles. Check out these activity sheets from the USDA and SNA.
Involve your kids in shopping and food preparation. Research has shown that kids are much more likely to adopt healthy diets if they’re involved in the process (which reinforces the importance of promoting healthy food at home). Ask your children about their favorite fruits and veggies. Make an effort to eat their favorites this week!
Teach kids to read labels and details on menus. Look at serving sizes, calories, and sugars. Let your children point out the healthy items vs. the less healthy selections.
Explain the difference between snacks and treats. Snacks can be healthy breaks, such as fruits and vegetables, that we eat every day. Treats are the sugary items like cupcakes or cake that are meant for special occasions. Equally important, large sugar-filled items should never be used as meal replacements.
Teach your child a lifelong lesson -- how to navigate the salad bar! More schools are beginning to introduce salad bars in the cafeteria. Take your kids to a local restaurant with a salad bar and show ‘em how it’s done so that they’ll know how to navigate the salad bar in school. Here are some quick tips:
- Start with a base of leafy greens.
- Add as much variety of colorful veggies and fruit as possible to maximize the nutrients and fiber.
- Add a lean protein, if available, such as chicken, turkey, hard-boiled egg, nuts, tofu, or low-fat cottage cheese.
- Add some healthy fat with an oil and vinegar dressing. Try to minimize (or skip!) the creamy dressings.
Try to avoid the “white stuff” (aka pasta salads, potato salads, etc.)
- Take pictures of your kid’s school lunch and post it on social media. Show everyone how healthy their lunch tray looks! If you tag our team on Facebook or Twitter, we’ll share your examples. You can also submit your photos here during the month of October to have a chance to win a special prize pack from the SNA.
Pick one or more of these ideas and celebrate National School Lunch Week with your child. It’s a good chance to reinforce healthy decisions so that our kids can incorporate them into their daily lives.