School Lunches ... Hot or Cold?

Written By: Rachel Strong
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First there were four, now there are six, no one knows how many more there may be in the future. The four original food groups were tossed out a long time ago. The food pyramid, also, seems to be on its way out, in favor of something more descriptive of today's U.S. diet.

Nutrition is important at every stage in life, from the womb to one's deathbed. Getting the right amount of vitamins and nutrients can prevent a myriad of diseases, help build strong bodies, and may even prevent diseases later in life.

As parents, it is our job to make sure our students receive the right nutrition, and are not skimping on healthy in deference to the tasty. Even when we pack cold lunches for our students, apples can be exchanged for sugary fruit snacks, milk for pop, or fruit snacks for chocolate. In moderation, fruit snacks, pop, and chocolate are not bad, but not something one wants to eat every day.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) means no child is left behind during lunch as well. According to the NCLB websites, a large portion of students in this country are eligible for free or reduced-cost school lunches—a much better deal than either going without lunch or feeding a vending machine money. Students whose families have incomes of less than $37,000 a year are eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches. According to the National School Lunch Program, students who qualify cannot be charged more than 40 cents for their lunches, which may be a good alternative for low-income families. Students get access to the nutrition they need, for little or no cost.

In elementary school, the menu is usually set and there is little ability to exchange foods, except for reasons of allergies. Menus are sent home for the entire month, and can help parents and students plan nutritious meals for the rest of the month. Kidshealth.com gives some advice for parents when the monthly school lunch menus are sent home.

Look over the cafeteria menu with your child. Discuss each choice (if multiple choices are available) and encourage the healthiest, but if there is a special entrée, such as barbequed hamburgers, allow your student to have a treat every once and a while.

Ask about foods like chips, soda, and ice cream—how often are they available and in what quantities.

Encourage your child to pack a lunch, at least occasionally. This will not only provide variety, but also give you some more control over what your child takes as his lunch.

In middle school and high school, however, the school lunch menu is more diverse and students can pick what they want to eat—anything from the salad bar to a grilled, greasy, ham and cheese sandwich with fries.

In the typical school cafeteria, students can choose an unhealthy mix of foods, taking advantage of the less nutritious fare often available a la carte or in the vending machine. This also allows students to eat the same thing every single day.

According to KidsHealth.com, while many school lunches meet the standards for protein, vitamins, calcium, and iron, but the lunches still exceed recommendations for fat, and when students only choose one entrée their entire school career, that can add up. Encourage your student—especially if he or she does not get a good "balanced" breakfast—to experiment with lunch, and try something new at least once a week.

Many students, and parents, love the prepackaged "Lunchable" type lunches. They are quick, easy, convenient, and are an entire meal packed into one plastic container. They are wonderful for field trips, when a bagged lunch is required. However, for every-day lunches, prepackaged lunches can also be expensive and less than nutritious.

When you pack lunches for your student, also remember nutrition. Sodas are less nutritious (and in fact dehydrate and rob bodies of nutrients) than milk or even water. Even a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich, some raw veggies, and a piece of fruit—even if they might be traded—is highly nutritious. If you need help, use the food pyramid (grains on bottom, fruits and vegetables make the second layer, dairy and meats the third, and up at the top, fatty foods) for a good guideline. And, as long as your student enjoys it, and has access to a microwave, there is nothing wrong with last night's leftover lasagna or cold pizza.

Remember, we as parents cannot dictate what our child eats for lunch—especially when they are eating the hot lunches at school. We can't force children to eat healthy (anyone who has tried to get a picky eater to eat all of their peas knows that). But we can encourage students to begin making healthy decisions early.

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