The Cafeteria Chronicles: Tips for a Healthy School Lunch

Back to school time is here and that means back to school lunches! Whether your child packs a lunch, buys lunch, or a combination of the two, below are a few tips to guide you to a healthy school lunch.

Consumer’s Choice

If your child feels empowered to make healthy choices, those choices are more likely to stick! Try going over the school lunch menu with your child. Ask them what choices look tasty and encourage them to eat a main entree or sandwich, as these items are the most nutrient dense.

Ginter Park's Fruit and Veggie Tasting 2016

Ginter Park Elementary School, Richmond Public Schools

Encourage your child to choose one item from each food group, fruit, vegetable, whole grain, and dairy. The USDA offers a number of resources for children to help reinforce the concepts of balanced meals and portion control. Talk to your child about the choices they make during school lunch. Positive reinforcement of healthy choices will help them to continue choosing things that make them feel good and full throughout the day!

Check out what they’re serving in your child’s cafeteria!

Chesterfield County Public Schools’ Menus
Henrico County Public Schools’ Menus
Hopewell City Public Schools’ Menus
Petersburg City Public Schools’ Menus
Richmond Public Schools’ Menus

The Brown Bag Brigade

Even the littlest hands can participate in packing school lunches! Allowing children to pack some or all of their lunch will give them independence in making their own healthy decisions. Packing lunch together can provide an opportunity for you to discuss the different food groups and nutrition with your child.

Registered dietitian, Jill Castle recommends setting clear guidelines for children packing their own lunch. For example, “I’d like to see at least 4 out of 5 food groups represented.” Give you child a choice of a few different healthy options from each food group!
“Reasonable choices should be two or three items for each food group,” Castle says, “A turkey sandwich or a ham sandwich; grapes or clementine; whole wheat bread or a whole wheat wrap. Identifying the choices puts the food quality in your hands. Remember, give control to gain control…your child ultimately packs his own food choices from the options you provide.”


Fit4Kids’ Approved Brown Bag!

Need some ideas other than PB&J and an apple? This video from Easy Lunch Boxes features a year of brown bag inspiration.

Finally, prep as much as you can on the weekends to relieve some of the stress of figuring out what to pack. Wash, peel, and slice fruits and vegetables and store them in the fridge so kids can easily grab them to add to their lunch bags, or for a healthy after school snack. PB&J sandwiches can be made in bulk and frozen in sandwich bags, toss them in your child’s bag and they will be thawed out by lunchtime.

This Nutty Berry Trail Mix is a great make ahead lunch or after school snack item packed with energy. Leave out the chocolate chips, or decrease the amount in the recipe, if you are concerned about too much sugar. This recipe makes 10 cups of trail mix.

Lunch and Learn

Tell your child why you expect them to eat their lunch. Reiterate to consume the main entree first and to spend the lunch period, eating not just chatting with classmates.

Enjoying a Salad Bar

Happy Salad Bar Customer at Westover Hills Elementary

Skipping lunch will not only leave your child with hunger pains, but can also cause sleepiness, irritability, and a lack of concentration, all factors not conducive to learning and growing.

(Related: What happens when kids skip lunch?)

Whether your child packs a lunch or buys lunch in their school cafeteria, there are so many healthy options available! With a little discussion, planning, and follow-up you can help your child establish lifelong healthy eating habits. Good Luck!

-Cynthia Piazza, Wellness Integration Specialist