Why This Registered Dietitian’s Kid Eats School Lunch

shironosov/ iStock / Getty Images Plus
shironosov/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

For the past several weeks, my social media feeds have been flooded with tips, tricks and gorgeous pictures of nutritious and appealing lunches for kids. It seems like kids across the country will be sitting down with properly insulated bento boxes of perfect, adorable cookie-cutter sandwiches, sides of caterpillar-shaped fruit and cartons of organic milk.

But not the kid of this registered dietitian.

In our house, we nudge our school-age child toward buying a hot school lunch. If you haven’t been to a school lunch cafeteria in a while, I urge you to visit your child at lunch — you might be surprised.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 required, for the first time in more than 15 years, that school lunch standards conform to the latest dietary guidelines. This meant using only whole-grain ingredients, serving more fresh fruits and vegetables, providing only low-fat or fat-free milk, reducing sodium and setting calorie limits, among other changes.

The foods served at my child’s school may look like normal kid fare, but they are made with better-for-you ingredients. Chicken nuggets and buns are made with whole grains, hot dogs are actually turkey dogs, and pizza is made with a whole-wheat crust and low-fat cheese. All vegetables served on the side (and every child must take a vegetable) are either fresh or reduced-sodium, if canned. Dessert is not served, except on special occasions.

Yes, not everything on her tray gets eaten and some food ends up in the trash. However, more often than not, on the days I pack her lunch, her lunchbox comes home with untouched food, too.

Another thing I like about having my child eat school lunch is that it allows positive peer pressure to work. If other kids at her table are eating the same thing and her “good” friend is gobbling up the pea-and-carrot cup with gusto, my daughter may be inspired to give it a try, too. Exposure and modeling are powerful teaching tools, especially when it comes to trying new foods. It works great at my son’s preschool, where kids and teachers eat the same lunches and snacks. They even have paella on the menu, which, apparently, my son now likes!

So parents, when you get tired of having your “broccoli tree” and “celery boat” lunch diorama return home untouched, rethink school lunch — with the knowledge that your darling will get a healthy meal … served lovingly by someone else.

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Elana Natker
Elana Natker, MS, RD, is a nutrition communications consultant in the Washington, D.C., area, and overseer of the Sage Nutrition Network. Her blog is at connectwithsage.com, and you can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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