As a dietitian, I have discussed the topic of “healthy school lunches” many times, but now being a mom of a first grader, I feel even more qualified to give some advice on this topic. I believe one of the most important things about school lunch is making sure our kids are actually eating it.
Most of us take an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” approach to school lunch. If we remember to put money in the lunch account or the lunch box was made, our job is done, right?
If the menu reads chicken nuggets, fries, tossed salad, fruit cup and milk we need to be realistic that our children might not have eaten all that. They may have eaten a few bites of nuggets, a few fries and called it a meal. This scenario is not a big deal occasionally, but on a regular basis it could start affecting their growth and development. Not only do our children eat too little at lunch but then they come home from school hungry and eat a few too many snacks and in return are too full to eat the healthy dinner you just prepared. Vicious cycle.
Here are a few tips in figuring out what your child is actually eating. No 1., have a casual conversation. “Hey, how was lunch today?” Did you like the chicken nuggets?” Pay attention to how much is left in their lunch pails when they come home. Keep in mind just because the lunch pail is empty doesn’t mean they didn’t throw half of it in garbage. So, don’t be afraid to ask your children questions if they packed a lunch that day.
What do you do if you discover they are throwing most of their lunch away? It could be as simple as reviewing the school menu in advance with them and packing on the days with menus they don’t care for. I realize this takes extra work and planning but if it helps them feel better by the end of the day, it’s important. Packed lunches don’t have to be Pinterest worthy. Simple can be just as healthy. P&J on whole wheat bread, a few veggies, a fruit or yogurt and you’re done.
If you discover your little packer is not eating their sack lunch it might just be a case of “burn out.” Last year, my child randomly stopped eating the apple slices I packed. They were eaten before with no problems. I later discovered he was tired of red apples and preferred the tart green ones. Easy switch.
Don’t forget time can be a factor. Sometimes 20 minutes is all they have to eat lunch. If you are packing a whole sandwich, a bag of chips and carrots and they run out of time to finish their lunch, more than likely the carrots will be left. Consider packing small amounts of each food group to help them out. For example: half a sandwich, small number of chips, few carrots and few grapes. This can help them have time and belly space for a variety of foods.
Lastly, remember a small change can have a big impact. This is true in all areas of our lives even when it comes to a healthy school lunch.
Bethany Amstutz is a dietitian at Mercy Health.