HomeHealth & BehaviorHealth & Nutrition

Tips to make school lunches healthier

There's a new kind of food fight erupting in schools, districts and state legislatures as alarm over childhood obesity spreads. What's a parent to do?

By GreatSchools Staff

From the school board to the statehouse, the food served at school is the focus of debate.

The statistics that started the food fights are familiar: One in five U.S. children is overweight, and increasing numbers of them are developing type 2 diabetes, an illness that used to be limited to adults.

Efforts to give kids healthier meal options have seen success: Soft drink makers have agreed to stop selling soda in elementary and middle schools, vending machines are being locked during school hours and salad bars are springing up in lunchrooms.

But they've also prompted a backlash from parents angry that "the food police" are taking the fun out of school celebrations by banning cupcakes. Other parents found out just how tough it can be to make changes when cash-strapped schools rely on the proceeds from vending machines, students balk at less fat-laden fare and lunchrooms are set up to reheat not cook from scratch.

But plenty of parents have made a difference in shaping children's food choices and in advocating for healthier menus in school.

What can parents do?

Here are some tips, based in part on recommendations from the American Dietetic Association and the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools, on how you can improve your child's nutrition at school and at home:

  • Get familiar with the menu. Keep a current school lunch menu and discuss it with your child. Schools offer food that meets guidelines for good nutrition, but they can't force kids to eat it. Students need to make the right choices.
  • Ask questions. Find out who decides what is for lunch. Who determines school policies on vending machines and snacks in the cafeteria and student store?
  • Get involved. Join or start a parent advisory council for the school food service program. Learn how parents and students can participate in the decision-making process. Schools that involve students in changing the menu, rather than simply imposing a new one, have a better chance at getting them to accept healthier meals.
  • Support the nutrition education efforts at school. If your school has an edible garden, volunteer to help. If none exists, create one. Sustainable Table has information about how to start one.
  • Encourage your child to pack his own lunch. Help him pick healthy choices that are fun to eat, such as string cheese, fruit, carrot sticks and pudding cups. If he packs it, he will be more likely to eat it.
  • Make your child a savvy media consumer. Kids are bombarded with TV advertisements for sugary cereal and treats. Point out the techniques advertisers use to make their products attractive.
  • Teach your child about nutritional labels. It will help her reading skills and make her a smart consumer if you make a game out of finding out how many names there are for 'sugar' in a label.
  • Advocate for the laws you want. Write to your representatives at the state and federal level. Express your concerns about school lunches, the placement of vending machines at your child's school or requirements for physical education programs.


Comments from readers

"I think schools should have a healthier lunch cause it is not fun to be overweight. People overweight dont get to do everything people can do if not oevrweight. Being health is a good thing. Healthier bodies turn out to get in to better jobs cause they have healthier minds. A health body means a health life time. "
"I have had the honor to have lunch with my first grader twice, on Mondays. I have come away dissapointed. The first Monday the school served Chicken noodles, or Burrito. My son chose the chicken noodles so I decided to sample the burrito. It wa horrible. The fruit was a half of an orange, which all the children threw away because they had a hard tim peeling it. When I was a child the oranges were cut into wedges which I thought was much easier to consume. Today the choices were Tomatoe soup or burrito. My son chose the burrito so I chose the soup. It came with a half grilled cheese sandwich that was very dry and crusty, the soup was ok. The veggie was sliced carrots, they were bland. There was sliced watermelon which was a winner in my book. All in all our childens lunches seem to be pretty sad. I am a full paying/tax paying mother, whom is discouraged about our childens lunches. I thought I would like to engage in a lunch committe to help try and make lunch better for our k! ids, I will proceed with this quest, if any other mothers or fathers would like to join me to help make a difference I would like to hear from you."
"I think one problem with school lunches is the insistence on it being 'hot.' What our cafeteria serves is really just kid junk food: hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken nuggets. If there were a sandwich bar with no white bread, and side raw veggies, kids would find enough things to eat and not eat lots of fat. The problem is that it takes too much time and adult assistance, and there would be problems of food waste. But the hot lunches served in cafeterias are far from healthy choices."
"My daughter brings healthy lunches to school and has always eaten well. But now that she is in Kindergarten we are having a problem - the teachers give candy out as rewards, parents send in cookies and junk food for snack time, the PTO sells cookies and candy to raise money. I'm battling forces all over the place, not just the cafeteria..."
"as a parent i dont think my child should be told what they can or cant eat for packed lunch she was told no choclate fair deal but there hot dinners have choclate puds thats just not fair!!!!"
"I think children and parents should have the right to eat what they want. It's good to get them involved, but I don't think that they really want their children eating no sugar at all."
"these are all very good suggestions, i am doing my project on how young adults today are getting bigger and bigger at a very young age. I was wondering what are some other tips you can give me to help out with my project? "
"eliminate vending machines!"
" We need to take out sugar in food at school"
"I think that those are very good ideas"
"that was amazing i could use it"
"THis is great, however, we have some choices once they are in primary school by packing lunches. What about the daycares? The food is horrible! Poptarts for breakfast, pizza with ranch dressing for lunch, cookies and juice for snacks. I am not allowed to send my own food, therefore, leaving me very little choice on what she can eat. Please help!! We are giving ourr children a poor start right from the beginning at daycares."
"The school lunches have turned for bad to worse. Have your children been complianing about how bad the food taste, mine have. So i went to try the food and they are right it's terrible. They come home hungry if they don't like the food. What happens to the kids who only eat the food at schools and not at home. If the food is so bad and they don't eat then what happens? Do they just go hungry? I live in a rual area and there are alot of migrant workers and the kids only eat at schools and the food is really bad, so they go hungry. I'm not talking about not having junk food but they are limited to how they cook the food so it is so terrible tasting. I think if they are limited to how they have to cook they should teach them how to cook the food so it taste good."
"rap a tap tap was both of my girls' favorite book of all time! it is now my favorite of all time. it's taped together so when i find another copy i will save it for my grandkids!"
"i feel the school lunches is not nutrtional. they claim thier is to many over weight children in this country. they need to get rid of the snacks and sweets and potatos rice breads, they need more health foods in the school systems. lie veggies, fruits, nuts. and plenty of water bottles. "
"Sugaryness may taste good, but it is bad for you. I agree to take away sugar over letting it stay, but taking it all away is not a good thing. Reduce it, but dont destroy it! Maybe a bag of chips at recess and a healthy sandwich or sompthing at lunch will probably do the trick."
"I am a senior this year and i can remember when i used to have 3 recesses in first grade. Also when i was in 8th grade my recess used to be gym. I havent taking a gym class in my high school career. Im very upset about that. I know of other school that have advanced gym and weightlfting as courses you can take. I think more schools should be like that. Since they are taking our good foods away. They took our juice machines out, they were health for you. But now they have all this sugar free stuff and it taste nasty. This artical really helps my reports and hopefully the people running this country realizes that they can not tell us to stop eatting fatting food and then turn around and take our recesses and our gym classes they are plain stupid im sorry "
"i think the biggest problem is not the food but the amount of exercise these children are getting i know that when i was in school we had at least an hour lunch and 3 30min breaks durring the day but now your lucky to get a 30 min lunch and 1 10 min break they are pushing too much in-class time and not enough outside running time i mean a child sits in a class room for about 8 hours then they send home tons of homework that the child has to get done so alot of parents keep the child in to do it so basically a child does nothing but sit on there hind ends all day instead of being a child."
"this was a really great article, but i would like to learn more about what is in the cafeteria food."
"I thought this was a great article, with lots of valuable links. One thing I'd like to point out however, is that salsa, your opening example, is not really that bad of a food. It is low-cal, and high in Vitamin A, and it is, after all, made from vegetables. The problem lies, not with the salsa but with the foods it is served on/with. Otherwise, I found the article very helpful. Thanks!"
"when i was in 6 th grade i was overweight in my school [chain of lakes] we had papa johns, chick fil a slurpies,but then in the summer i started hitting the gym it was hard but i started liking it. i really like fruits and vegtable. but when i was in 7th grade every thing changed. we had double cheese burgers, greasy pizzas just like last year,chips with alot of grease in it and sodas. but the most things i was happy about was that they had salads but i wasnt happy was that they only had few of friends used to be very healthy but now they are over weight.sometimes i think that the school doesnt really care about the kids health. what i really think they care about is the money.they said that if they get more healthy stuff there money will go down.for once can they ever think about somebody else than them self. i try to convice my friends to eat more healthy stuff but they wont listen. im in 8th grade now its still the same i'd just hope that one day this greadyness would end"
"I think the problem in the cafeteria starts with the long lines. My son takes whatever he can get to quicker. He has informed me he stood in line for almost the whole lunch period. He had 5 minutes to eat what was left, not what he wanted. I do have a problem with candy and soda machines, we never had them at my schools when I attended. We drank milk, orange juice, and water. Candy has no place in the school either. Why can't we put in machines that have fruit and sandwiches like they have in hospitals. Would'nt that make more sense? Then if the lunchroom is overcrowded they have some good choices. Instead of coke machines put in bottled water, gatorade, canned juices etc.There is nothing wrong with hamburgers, pizza. This is what everyone is eating on a daily basis, and they do have nutrional value. "
"I know as a parent that kids need to eat healthy and I try my best to make sure that my family does. I am also a cafeteria manager and its my job to prepare healthy menu's for the students that I serve. Most of the time they like what I prepare for the them but most of the time they want the junk food which they get on the way home from school. I think the reason that kids are getting so fat is not from school lunches, its from going to fast food places and liquor stores and getting the pepperbellies and soda's and chips that is why they are getting fat. I would like to ask one question, can you really make people eat healty if they don't want to look at all the unhealty people in the U.S and it will tell you No. "
"I am a high school student, and I am writing an argument paper on how candy, cokes, and non nutritional products should not be sold in school cafeterias, from elemenary to high school. I have been doing a lot of research in this area and I totally agree with everything people are writing about on here. reason being that I know I go to school everday and when I get hungry, there are always junkfoods available that sound good and arent good for me but I eat them because they are 'there.' It makes me tired for sports practice after school and just flat out horrible for me! "
"I'm always flabbergasted to learn that there are soda machines in the schools now, not to mention hamburger and pizza franchises brought in. Just another thing that doesn't help the students' thinking -or wasteline. This accompanied by a decrease in physical ed spells big trouble, and we're seeing the results. I'm ready for a turnaround, maybe this, the week of 'Turn Off the TV'... Thanks for the great article "
"I wish some sort of legislation would pass that would require students to participate in P.E. everyday. My daughter is 10 and gets a quick 20 minute lunch and rarely gets to go outside for an afternoon break. Physical Education should be part of the school curriculum everday like the other subjects. "
"in one school district we took out sodas and candy for a while and parents went wild.. They felt like their child should be able to have a coke and their favorite candy Bar! "
"I seem to be the only parent in the school who thinks it's a bad idea for the PTA to sell candy during/after lunch. My kids come home with a ton of candy. My 5 year old had 5 cavities at his last dental appt. Everyone on the PTA thinks I'm overreacting by wanting the PTA to stop the sale of candy. They think it's a great idea, not to mention a good fund raiser. I think we are teaching our kids unhealthy eating habits and we are permanently affecting their dental health. It's ironic when the school has a dental hygientist come in to talk about the proper way to care for their teeth and to stay away from sugary snacks, but then the school offers them taffy and pixie stix. It's not like these kids are deprived. They have class parties, special events, birthdays, holidays, not to mention grandparents who give them treats. Do I have to fight a losing battle with the school as well? Am I the only one with any common sense? Why are so many parents afraid to say no to their children? The answer I get is that the kids like candy, so I should let it be. Well, kids like lots of things they shouldn't have. That's why they have parents--to set limits and protect them, yes, even from candy. Does anyone out there agree with me? Any ideas on what to do? "
"Help, we're a very small school, 245 students k-12 under one roof. The lunch lady rules the roost, and folks are afraid to cross her. Some concerned parents are getting together to come up with ideas and plans to change the menu. We want to rid of all the fries, 3x3 brownies with frosting, bread bread and more bread filled with breaded chopped chicken meat etc. Does anyone have ideas on how to be diplomatic while we are in the process of getting started? "
"The menu at my childrens elementary school is sound but all the extras they can buy are not. This and the lack of physical activity are a cause for great concern. My chidren were allowed to buy as many junk food items as they wished until I had cafeteria staff flag their lunch accounts with some limits.The only tip off I had (besides my son bringing home a backback full of goodies) was that their lunch money for the month was gone in one week. The kids have one gym class a week and a 20 min recess a day. What a deadly combo. I think it is bad for their mental health as well, they have a high volume of work to complete, are allowed sugary snacks, very little social time, and only a 20 min recess. Often on the days i pack my chidrens lunches they bring some or most back home and tell me they ran out of time during their 20 min lunch to eat. These are chidren, they need more down time! After they return home we are bombarded with homework, and after school activities. Both of my children are in the 90th percentile for their weight and 50th percentile for their height. Both parents are diabetics. It scares the heck out of me that my children could develop diabetes so young, I must be ever vigilant to prevent it. Schools should be an ally for teaching kids to be healthy, they should not even offer unhealthy snacks regardless of the profit margin. We push them academically much faster than previous generations without giving them balance. How will they handle this stressfull world with poor nutrition, and time to blow off steam? I see why so many choose to home school these days. "
"The New Hampshire Dental Society is interested in seeing that soft drinks are removed from vending machines in the schools in NH. It is reassuring to see the committment for overall health of our school age children "