Eating well at school starts with a plan and expectations. Learn how to help your child make healthy food choices at school.
Over the next few days, my children will traipse through the front doors of school and begin the first day of school.
In anticipation of this day, I have started stocking up on lunch packing gear and food items for their lunch boxes.
I pack most days and they buy once or twice each week. As a pediatric nutritionist, I have intentionally created this balance in an attempt to help my kids eat well during the school week.
But, I don’t just pay attention to the foods I pack. Because my kids also buy lunch at school, I want them to have a guideline for making good food choices.
In this article, I’m laying out the rules and expectations I use with my kids for eating at school, whether they pack a sack lunch, or buy school lunch.
Can You Make Your Child Choose a Healthy School Lunch?
Whether you are stocking the kitchen with lunch-packing fare or scouring the school lunch menu online, you know deep down inside that you cannot control your child and what he or she chooses to eat while at school.
I know this fact, too.
But I also know there are ways you can encourage eating well at school.
Some of you may fret about this. Some of you may take it in stride.
I know it’s not easy to trust your child to make healthy choices when they’re away at school.
How can you be sure your child will choose healthy food?
How do you dissuade them from eating an all starchy carb meal or a hefty dose of sweets?
8 Tips to Encourage Eating Well at School
I’ve compiled 8 tips you can use to help your child eat well at school. These are suggestions based on my own kids and from working with other families.
Set Expectations for Eating Well
You want your child to eat at lunchtime. After all, his attention, focus and learning in the afternoon depend on it!
Let your child know you expect that she or he will eat most if not all of her or his lunch at lunchtime.
No parent likes to hear that lunch was skipped.
Set the expectation for eating up front, provide some guidance for dealing with chatty friends, and follow up to make sure lunch and eating are going smoothly.
Connect the Dots Between Food and Learning
Learning happens best when little bodies and brains are fueled. You and I know that, but your child may not.
Connect the dots.
Help her understand that her attention is better, her focus in honed, and her memory works best when she’s eating well at mealtime.
Must Eats at School Lunch
I like to let my kids know that they are eating for health and growth.
This translates to eating protein (usually contained in the entrée or sandwich), fruit, vegetables, whole grains, and a dairy option (milk or non-dairy substitute such as soy milk) so they get a balanced meal.
I feel better, and I assure them that they will too, if they eat most of these lunch items.
Pick Produce from the School Lunch Menu
If your child is choosing lunch in the lunch line or is taking a pre-selected combination of lunch foods, make it clear that he or she should pick and eat at least a piece of fruit or a vegetable at lunchtime.
These items ramp up the health quality of the meal.
Dairy as Part of a Healthy School Lunch
Whether your child chooses milk or yogurt or cheese, adding a source of dairy to lunch rounds out the meal and adds a good source of calcium.
If your child doesn’t tolerate dairy foods, read this article to determine the best non-dairy alternative to use.
Eating Well on a Time Budget
Remind your child that he may not have much time to eat at lunchtime.
If he socializes, he may not get to finish his meal before it’s time to go to recess or back to class.
While this might seem like it will be okay, it might backfire, leading to hunger later in the day.
Too much hunger can impair focus and attention in the classroom—and it can just feel downright yucky.
Trading Food at School Lunch
Almost all children trade food at school at one time or another. That’s ok.
But give your child some guidelines should he decide to make a deal. You don’t want him trading his sandwich for a bag of chips.
Follow what I call the “same-same rule.”
Encourage your child to make an even swap. A sandwich for a sandwich or entrée; a dessert for a dessert; a fruit for a fruit.
Plan Ahead for the School Lunch Menu
Look at the school lunch menu with your child. Choose which days your child will purchase school lunch, and plan together which items he will purchase.
This pre-plan will help your child pick a balanced meal, and reduce the chances of picking an unbalanced meal.
If she’s bringing a sack lunch from home, decide ahead of time what items will be packed together to create a healthy lunch.
Last Thoughts about Eating Well at School
The reality is, your child is alone at school, making his or her own decisions.
There’s not much you can do once he or she walks through the school doors.
But, you can set your child up for success as he walks into the lunchroom.
What suggestions do you have for helping kids eat well at school?
I have a few resources I think you’ll find helpful!
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: September 2, 2015
Updated on: September 20, 2019