Choosing a healthy school lunch isn't always easy, but we have some tips. Pictured: children eating.
Photo: kids eating in school cafeteria

More than 30 million children in the U.S. purchase their lunches at school, and many parents find themselves unsure about whether what their kids are eating is healthy and nutritious.

On one hand, school lunch standards improved significantly with 2010’s Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which mandated more whole grains and lean proteins, a gradual reduction of sodium levels, and a cap on calories and saturated fats.

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On the other hand, last year the Department of Agriculture started rolling back these rules, allowing schools more flexibility on serving flavored milk (which contains added sugars), easing requirements for serving whole grains, and loosening restrictions on sodium.

As a parent, where does that leave you? You might be tempted to pack all your kids’ lunches at home, to ensure you know exactly what they’re feeding their growing bodies and minds. But it can be tricky to find time every day to prepare meals that are nutritious—and that your kids will eat.

I’ve compiled some tips you can use to help your kids navigate the school lunch line. I use them with my family, too.

9 Tips to Help Children Make Healthy Choices

Look Over the Menu Together
At the beginning of each week, take a look at the school lunch menu with your children and talk about the options. Encourage healthy choices, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, rather than only pointing out foods you’d like them to avoid eating every day, like hot dogs or pizza. Explain how a healthy lunch gives them energy and helps their bodies grow stronger.

Ask Your Child About Lunch Every Day
Let your child know that what he or she had for lunch is just as important as a grade on a spelling quiz or how fun gym was. Discussing food choices routinely with children emphasizes their importance. Reinforce good habits and make suggestions for other healthy items they may like. Children can also look to their peers to get new ideas. If your child is struggling to find foods he likes, tell him to take a look at his friend’s lunch for inspiration. 

Show Them the Power of Choice
Helping your children to make healthy decisions on their own will give them independence and encourage them to try new foods. To model how to make healthy meal choices, I take my kids grocery shopping, and I explain what makes me pick various items. I’ll tell them that we’re getting cucumbers and red peppers (which we all like) and why those are healthy, but I’ll add in something we don’t get as often, like beets, and explain why those are good to try, too.

Encourage Them to Drink Water or Plain Milk
Sugars in juice or sweetened milk can add up fast. If your child is a big chocolate or vanilla milk fan, discuss certain days to splurge (e.g., Tuesdays and Thursdays).

Plan Around Favorite Fruits and Veggies They Like
Even the pickiest eaters will generally have a few healthy items they enjoy, like carrot sticks or apple slices. When you see those options on the lunch menu, those are good days to plan for a cafeteria lunch.

Let Them Have Some Fun Foods
It’s okay to allow the occasional slice of pizza or other less healthy option for lunch if you feel your child is generally eating well and making smart choices. You don’t want your kid to feel like you’re taking all the fun out of eating.

Teach Them to Take Only What They’ll Eat
A 2014 study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed that 60 percent of fresh vegetables and 40 percent of fruit in school lunches were being thrown away. School lunches are a good opportunity to discuss food waste with your kids, and let them know they shouldn’t take anything they aren’t going to eat. You can explain the reasons, like how landfills are filling up and how valuable food is. 

Don’t Limit Healthy Choosing to the Cafeteria
Picking food that’s good for you doesn’t happen only in the lunchroom. On days when your child will be bringing lunch, create the meal together. That allows your child to choose favorite healthy options and he or she may appreciate the concept of healthy whole foods even more. These lessons will then translate when your kid is in the cafeteria line and encourage him or her to choose similar foods.

Be an Advocate
If it’s allowed, go eat lunch at your child’s school and see what the food choices are like. You can offer feedback, suggest new items, or even join your school district’s wellness committee to learn more about what goes into meal-planning decisions and provide your own input. Keep in mind that the foods in your children’s school cafeteria may not all be cooked from scratch. Some processed heat-and-eat foods like fries and pizza qualify as healthy enough for school lunches but are not necessarily the healthiest options for your kids. Knowing more about the food that’s served can help you fine-tune your suggestions to your child about what food choices are best.