6 Steps to a Healthier School Lunch For Your Child

healthy school lunch

The following is a guest post by Denis Faye, a writer and father who is working to change the school lunch system one child at a time.

The state of school lunches in America is, generally speaking, lousy. All the evidence you need is a quick peek at your child’s school lunch menu, but here are a few more convincing facts:

  • 17% of American children aged 2-19 are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control.
  •  “Sugary drinks and less healthy foods on school campuses” and “advertising of less healthy foods” are two big contributors to childhood obesity (CDC).
  • In 2011, a Penn State study showed that low-income girls participating in school lunch programs across the country gained weight faster than girls who did not eat school lunch regularly.

My school district is no exception. When my daughter’s school started participating in sponsorship deals with Dominos and Taco Bell, I decided it was time to phase out school lunch for my daughter.  While I do see the value in letting children indulge sometimes (my theory is that denying kids the occasional chicken nugget today will almost guarantee that they’ll be at the head of the fried-food line come college), I don’t want to support this type of system on a regular basis.

Here’s what I’m doing to get my daughter on board with this plan without turning her into my nutritional nemesis:

1.  Continually educate her on our food system. I’m a vegetarian, but when my daughter asks for meat, I let her have it – as long as it’s organic, free-range stuff.  I have enlightened her on some of the realities of our broken meat industry, so she already has some basic knowledge of how meats used in school lunch are produced. This makes choosing school lunch significantly less appealing.  (Did you know that after mistreated egg-laying hens become too sick to lay eggs, they are sold to the school lunch program for meat? Gross, especially given that poultry is the main dish at least 2-3 meals a week on my daughter’s school lunch menu).

2.  Give her win-win opportunities. We eat out once a week, and I give my daughter the choice on our eat-out day whether she wants school lunch or a meal at a restaurant.  When given this choice, she’s happy to forgo junk food at lunch knowing the evening will bring something delicious with dad. And I try to make it fun and kid-friendly.  For example, Friday night is now “Pizza Night,” since Friday school lunch is Domino’s – something I hope she’ll skip.  She always chooses pizza with me over school lunch pizza, and since we buy our pies from a local joint that uses fresh organic ingredients and whole grain crusts, we both end up happy.

3.  Lead by example.  Since I encourage her to snack on carrots and apples and hydrate with water, I do the same. I can’t tell you how many times she’s seen me grab a piece of fruit from the fruit bowl and opted to do the same. I don’t make her do it; I just make it an appealing, easy option. My hope is that this practice becomes habit, so that when she’s faced with a choice in the school lunch line, she’ll grab the apple bag instead of the chip bag.

4.  Lunch box vogue.  I wear running shoes and shorts on most days, but my daughter is a bit of a fashion plate. I decided to invest in a functional accessory for her and bought a fancy, bento box-style lunchbox, complete with several different compartments. I choose the one from Go Green because it comes in a variety of stylish designs. She quickly bonded with the box, actively taking part in which food goes in which compartment.

5.  Give her power and choices.  If I had my way, my daughter would have carrots, apples, snap peas, and water with every meal. Not gonna happen.  And I want her to have fun with food.  So she gets to pick what foods go into her bento box…from our stock of healthy options.  The rule is one veggie, one fruit, and one “main course,” be it leftovers or an almond butter and preserves sandwich. I also throw in the occasional baked chips or tasty whole grain crackers and a cookie (these things always go in the small compartment).

6.  Outdo the lunch lady. Presentation is everything with kids. If your kid’s lunch looks cool, he or she will be more inclined to dig it. A couple times now, while the other kids have been choking down soggy chicken fingers, my kid has busted out a homemade, super-healthy pizza. Instant rock star!

At the end of the day, it’s going to take big change in our nation’s school nutrition programs to help solve our childhood obesity problem, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start one child at a time. Now that I’ve shared some of the tricks I use with my own daughter, I’d love to hear some of yours.

Denis Faye has been a professional journalist for 20 years, writing for Surfer, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Magazine, Outside, Wired, Men’s Health, Men’s Journal, GQ, Surfer, and Pacific Longboarder. He credits a 5-year jaunt through Australia for a 50 lb weight loss and his transformation into the fitness and sports enthusiast he is today. His sports include swimming, scuba, trekking, rock climbing, mountain biking, spelunking, and — most importantly — surfing. Denis writes for Beachbody, which provides effective and popular workout videos, including the Insanity Workout, a high intensity interval training program for total body conditioning.

1 Comment

  • Sonja Sandholm-Pound
    April 4, 2012 at 6:18 am

    I LOVE this! My children (ages 10 and 12) have been raised with healthy foods and knowing that they have a choice. They also know what the consequences are when people choose to always eat the unhealthy choices.
    It is a disgrace that in our great country we allow school systems to serve junk to our children.
    Thank you for this article. I will pass it along to friends.

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