Crushin' it in the school cafeteria

By 1st Lt. Jennifer T. West, MS, RD, LD; Chief, Clinical Dietetics; Nutrition Care Division; Eisenhower Army Medical CenterJuly 29, 2019

1st Lt. Jennifer T. West, MS, RD, LD

Chief, Clinical Dietetics

Nutrition Care Division

Eisenhower Army Medical Center

Editor's note: In addition to being a registered dietician, Lt. West is also the mother of a middle schooler and a high schooler.

Summer is winding down and families are preparing to head back to school. In the hustle and bustle of having to pick up school supplies, new clothes and preparing to wake up earlier, it might be easy to forget about what our kids are going to eat for lunch. While we may not always have time to plan ahead and prepare the "perfect" lunch, below are some quick tips to help make this meal a little healthier.

Most school-aged children have been exposed to the USDA's MyPlate graphic since it is usually displayed in schools and around cafeterias. This easy-to-navigate model shows what a healthy plate should consist of as well as suggested portions of each category: fruits, vegetables, protein, grains and dairy.

For those of us that grew up with the Food Guide Pyramid the USDA updated the graphic in 2011 to the sleek new MyPlate model. It is easy to apply this method of healthy eating to either a school lunch or a lunch brought from home- really any meal.

Some people might think that bringing a lunch from home is always the healthier option, but if those foods are high in added sugars, refined carbohydrates, and high in salt and fat, then the school lunch might be the better choice. Does a packed lunch of toaster pastries, potato chips, fruit snacks and soda sound like there is room for improvement?

These days, the National School Lunch Program is focused on providing a "nutritionally balanced, low-cost or free lunch" to kids attending schools. This includes offering fresh fruit, colorful veggies, lean proteins, whole grain items and low fat dairy products every day. Sounds a lot like MyPlate, right?

If your children are taking lunch to school, there are several things you can do to help encourage healthier eating habits. Definitely involve them in a conversation about what they like and don't like. If you can stock up on healthier foods they already enjoy, they will be more likely to eat it. Encourage kids to help grocery shop or prepare the shopping list, prep foods the night before, or pack lunches themselves.

Whether your family decides to make lunches at home or have school lunches, keep in mind these five tips for a healthier lunch:

1. Keep the MyPlate method in mind: choose fruits and veggies that add color to the meal. Think orange carrots, red bell peppers, green cucumbers, blue berries and yellow bananas. You get the idea: The more color the better.

2. Go for whole grains: these are foods that include crackers, breads, pasta and rice. Whole grains provide more nutrition than the refined counterparts. Think whole grain bread versus white bread. There are more vitamins, minerals and fiber in the whole grain bread. Look for the whole grain stamp when shopping to make a better choice.

3. Rethink your drink: A low-fat milk might be fine for lunch, but a sugar-sweetened drink is not. Avoid juice-type drinks, sodas and sweet teas for kids. Choosing a flavored water can be a fun way to still have a special beverage but avoid unnecessary sugar.

4. Mix it up: Do you pack or choose the same things every day for lunch? It might be time to add some variety (see tip 1). Try wraps, salads, sandwiches, bento-style lunches or add some fun shapes to your foods. Small cookie cutters can make a boring lunch more fun and enticing to children.

5. Keep packaged snacks to a minimum: Snacks like potato chips, fruity gummies, cheese-flavored crunchy things and candy should not be regular items in lunches. These foods are often highly processed, high in fat, salt and added sugar.

While they might taste good, having these types of foods all the time leaves little room for foods that will help growing kids (and their brains) get the nutrition they need.

While you and your family are preparing to go back to school this fall, keep in mind that simple nutritional changes are typically more doable and longer lasting than drastic overhauls. Whether you are choosing to bring lunch from home or have lunches at school, it is important to plan ahead, involve your children and help them choose healthier lunches. We all have a role in helping our kids grow and develop to their best potential.