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How healthy are school lunches?

Keep in mind...
  • School lunches have been under fire lately
  • Childhood obesity is on the rise
  • Good nutrition starts at home

School districts have faced criticism over the past several years for serving lunches that weren’t nutritiously balanced.

While the public outcry has led to an improvement in the quality of school lunches, there are still important factors to consider ensuring that your child is getting the most nutritious meals possible at school.

Being involved with your child’s school district and asking smart questions can help you make the right choices about school lunches.

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What makes school lunches unhealthy?

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A rise in childhood obesity and diseases such as juvenile diabetes in the last twenty years has led to increased public awareness about nutrition for children. School lunches have been front and center in this issue.

Parents and health experts protested that school lunches seemed to be geared more towards what was easy and inexpensive to make and most tempting to children without much regard for nutrition.

In 1995, Congress addressed this with a new nutritional standard for school lunches. While this reform was a step in the right direction, it did not completely solve the issue of unhealthy school lunches.

A recent national study found a direct correlation between lunches served in schools and childhood obesity. A large part of this is likely due to non-compliance. The same study indicated that up to 35 percent of public schools are not following the nutritional guidelines.

The unhealthy culprits in school lunches are generally not the meals themselves, but a la carte items like sugary sodas and ice cream sandwiches.

These are exempt from the nutritional guidelines, and therefore unregulated. Vending machines in schools that are packed with candy and unhealthy snacks are another contributor.

Unfortunately, a lot of the responsibility for unhealthy school lunches comes down to one factor. School districts are seeing their budgets squeezed more and more, and meals are one place where they can make cuts.

How do I know if my child’s school is serving unhealthy lunches?

Understanding what kind of nutrition your child is getting at school is more complicated than just looking at the cafeteria menu your child brings home.

You will have to do some investigation and talk to school officials, teachers, and your child to understand all of the factors in your child’s nutrition at school.

The first step is to call the school and ask to talk to the person in charge of the lunch program. Ask how many meal choices are offered to students and what they are.

Be sure to check if there are vending machines, dessert carts, or a la carte items being offered. Also, ask if a child’s meal choices are tracked.

Some school districts record which school lunch items each child buys and makes this information available to parents.

Ask your child some questions as well. Find out what their meal preferences are, and why they are or are not making healthy choices.

If they say, for example, that they eat from the dessert cart because the line for the hot lunch is too long, make it clear what your expectations from them are.

Don’t be afraid to enlist a teacher or a cafeteria aide for feedback on your child’s school lunch choices as well.

How can I make sure my child gets a healthy school lunch?

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The most obvious way to make sure that your child is having a healthy lunch is to bypass the school lunch system all together and prepare a lunch from home.

However, this may not be an option all the time, so the following four steps will help ensure that your child is having the most nutritious school lunch possible.

Studies have shown that children who eat a balanced breakfast are less likely to overeat throughout the day and are less likely to be obese.

In addition, packing a healthy snack can ward off hunger during the day. Fresh veggies or a piece of fruit is a great alternatives to replace a fatty or processed item on the school lunch tray.

What can I do?

You can help influence what kinds of foods are made available to your child at school. Work with other parents or your district’s Parent/Teacher group to lobby for more nutritious school lunches.

Make sure your child has a firm understanding of what is healthy and what is not. Encourage them to make nutritious choices that will lead to better health and more energy.

Talking about good nutrition at home will help your child make the right choices when faced with unhealthy lunch options at school.

It’s true that many schools serve unhealthy school lunches, and unfortunately, you may not be able to control everything that is put in front of your child at school.

However, by educating yourself, asking the right questions, and taking action, you can help your child get the most nutritious school lunch possible!

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