Yes, it’s back-to-school time. And that means navigating the lunch menu.
Whether you pack, or let your child buy, or do a combo of the two, it’s time to set the standards for the lunch menu.
In this article, I will cover how to teach your child to navigate the school lunch menu, what to pack from home, how to support kids in packing their own meal, and how to stay organized and efficient.
How to Navigate the Lunch Menu
There are several things you should be thinking about if you want to ease into and excel with healthy school lunches.
But, remember, it’s not all about you. It’s also about the golden opportunity for your child.
You can use school lunches to teach and train your child how to make nutritious choices. Let me show you how!
Use school lunches to teach and train your child how to make nutritious choices. Click To Tweet
Set the Ground Rules about School Lunch
I know, I know, you don’t want to be too rule-ish. Or too controlling.
But, without ground rules, or clear guidelines, you could have a child eating a very unbalanced lunch—like all carbs (potato, bread and pasta).
Sadly, I’ve been there.
You know deep down inside that you cannot control your child and what he or she chooses to eat at school.
But, you can lay the ground rules and expectations that give your child the framework for making reasonably nutritious choices.
Choosing What to Eat Off the School Lunch Menu
When my kids were younger, I outlined the foods in their lunch that were most important to eat. I expected them to eat their main entrée, whether it was a sandwich or leftovers, followed by other items in the lunchbox.
To me, the entrée had the lions share of the protein and calories and I wanted to make sure they consumed at least that item.
Other priority foods to eat included fruit, vegetables and a dairy option (milk or non-dairy substitute, such as soy milk).
If your child buys lunch from school, review the healthy meal plan essentials:
- entrée (usually the protein source)
Picking one item from each food group is ideal and often is already showcased on the school lunch menu, but sometimes your child may be allowed to piece his meal together from several options.
Highlight the foods that will cover appetite and encourage satisfaction and focus in the classroom.
Expectations for Eating Healthy School Lunches
You want your child to eat healthy at school. Be clear that you expect your child to eat most if not all of his lunch and provide some guidance for dealing with chatty friends.
If your child doesn’t get to finish his meal before it’s time to go to recess or back to class, he or she may be hungrier later in the day.
What about Trading Food at School?
Almost all children trade food at one time or another.
If your child strikes a deal, make sure he follows the “same-same rule:” make an even swap such as a sandwich for a sandwich or entrée; a dessert for a dessert; or a fruit for a fruit.
You get the idea.
Encourage Your Child to Pack a Sack Lunch
Even tiny hands can help with packing a sack lunch!
Have you heard the phrase,
“Give control to gain control?”
Allowing independent lunch packing is one of the best ways to help teach and train your child about nutritious foods. Packing a sack lunch has other benefits, too:
- Packing a sack lunch supports your child’s emerging independence and abilities. Self-esteem comes from being good at something. Letting your child make his own lunch is just one way to build up your child.
- Your child is making important decisions about his day (from the options you provide), which will have ramifications, such as a full, satisfied belly after eating, or a cranky, hungry child who didn’t get the right foods or amounts to eat. Much can be learned from the choices your child makes.
- What you teach and preach becomes a reality. There’s nothing like hands-on food assembly to make all those teachable nutrition moments come alive!
Quick Steps for Packing a Brown Bag Lunch
I’ve created a guide (below) for helping you set your child up for success with packing his own lunch. I also wrote an article with tips on packing a school lunch. In a nutshell, here’s what you need to think about:
Use clear guidelines
These guidelines should be like a recipe: step-by-step simple instructions to make it easy for your child.
For example, outline the food groups you would like to see included in your child’s lunch. Use starter portion sizes for kids.
Tell him how many food groups to include; I like to see at least 4 out of the 5 food groups represented.
Outline reasonable food options
Reasonable choices could be two or three items for each food group: a turkey sandwich or a ham sandwich; grapes or clementine; whole wheat bread or a whole wheat wrap.
Laying out the food choices puts the quality in your hands.
Remember, give control to gain control…
Your child ultimately packs his own food choices from the options you provide.
Grab this handy guide for helping your child pack a sack lunch—it has all the details to make independent lunch packing simple!
Other Tips for a Healthy Sack Lunch
If you leave lunch packing to the morning of school, you’ll be stressed and so will your child. Take some time to get a leg up on school lunches!
Enlist some weekend help
Make a list of liked foods
I tell my personal clients to make a list of liked foods, especially if they have a picky eater.
Having a “liked” list handy can help take the mystery out of what to pack.
[Get my workbook: Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods if you have a picky eater — it’s great for all ages and degrees of picky eating.]
Upgrade foods to healthier versions
You can use some easy food upgrades to improve the nutritional quality of the food your child eats.
I talk about this on The Nourished Child Podcast, episode 004, where I outline 13 Easy Food Upgrades—so easy, you will be surprised you didn’t think of these yourself!
Get REALLY Organized
When I work with my clients, I use a Sack Lunch Planner. This helps parents and kids hit most of the food groups each day and rotate food groups and specific foods throughout the week.
Variety is front and center!
You want one?
There are so many opportunities to teach and train your child about nutrition!
Don’t let the lunch menu stress you out.
Do you use school lunch to teach and train your child about nutrition?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: August 24, 2016
Updated on: August 14, 2019