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Conquering the Cafeteria








Making sure kids eat healthy food at school takes more than packing an apple and sending them on their way.

For one thing, kids consume 50% of their daily calories at school. So, that apple (assuming it avoids the trash) won’t be all it takes to make sure your kids are eating healthy and balanced foods throughout the day.

At The Get Movin’ Crew, we try to make sure that the students influenced by our healthy fundraising programs50% not only get a sense of physical activity, but also understand the importance of healthy eating. And we’re not the only ones providing this positive influence.

In 2012, school cafeterias began being held to stricter standards when it came to providing breakfast and lunch to students. Now, 86% of schools are offering more fruit, veggies, whole-grains, low-fat dairy foods, and fewer products pumped with sugar and fat. This is great news for concerned parents who recall their own lunch food experiences of unidentifiable mush or greasy pizza and hotdogs. 

While this trend should certainly have parents rejoicing, it does not mean that unhealthy foods in the cafeteria do not exist. And, as Vicki Clinebell from the parenting blog Momtastic, tells us, Salty and sugary foods are abundant in school cafeterias and they’re tempting to kids. They’re colorful, quick and the other kids are eating them!”

So how can we battle the temptations of the cafeteria for our kids, while taking advantage of the new health standards and fresh foods offered in schools (especially when we can’t be there to constantly monitor what our kids eat)?

We have a few ideas gathered from fellow parents and backed by research into standards by the USDA. We leave it to you test out these suggestions and join the conversation about encouraging healthy eating habits for our youth! 

Understanding the Territory: Teach Your Kids How to Make the HEALTHY Choice

Ever try to help your kid with his or her math homework, only to realize that simple algebra or basic story problems (enough with the “when will the train arrive?” questions!) are throwing you for a loop? 

The same thing can happen when we try to teach our kids about making healthy choices without understanding the terrain of the cafeteria. A lot has changed since most of us have been in school, and Improving the quality of the schoollearning about these changes is the first step to ensuring healthy habits when you child is at school.

First off, we recommend getting to know the new standards that the government has placed on school cafeterias. Here’s a list from a press release issued by the USDA about the practical changes being made under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act:

  • Ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
  • Substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods
  • Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties
  • Limit calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size
  • Increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium.

Knowing this list can help direct you in what you need to be teaching your kid(s) about healthy eating at school. For example, make it a fun challenge for your child to have at least three colors on his or her plate to encourage eating those fruits and veggies. Also, try incorporating more of these foods into your meals at home so your child can begin to acquire a taste for and familiarity with foods like whole-grain bread and non-fat milk.

Most schools will post their lunch menu online or send it home with the students. Each week or month (depending on when you get the menu) try sitting down with your child and highlighting the healthy food options. Here is a link to an example of a school lunch menu by Montgomery Schools in Maryland. Notice how they list the calories and the specific fruits and veggies available each day.

Packing the Main Meal & Utilizing the A La Carte

One of the hardest parts of packing school lunches is the lack of refrigeration. Add in some busy moms & dads who are throwing food into a brown paper bag, and you have the makings of pre-packaged, fatty, salty, and sugary school lunches. 

Instead, try a hybrid of packed lunches with purchased, refrigerated a la carte items.a la carte 

However, there is a challenge to this method: the temptation of unhealthy a la carte foods.

Sending your kids to school with a packed sandwich and a few dollars to buy a yogurt and banana is great in theory, but much harder in practice. 

Here are a few ways to overcome the a la carte challenge:

  1. Write out a list of the a la carte items your child may purchase and tape it to the inside of the lunch box/bag. Healthy foods could include dried fruit like raisons or apricots, nonfat milk, low-fat yogurt, pretzels, low-fat mozzarella cheese stick and individual fruit cups. 
  2. Make it a game! Write out five healthy a la carte options on the back of post-it notes stuck to the inside of the lunch box/bag, writing Option 1, Option 2, etc. Your child then picks three of the post-it notes at random and gets to purchase those items. Adding in a little spontaneity can go a long way!
  3. Many schools have a la carte menus available. Sit down with your child and highlight the items that are healthy. Take it a step further by explaining why certain foods are healthy and certain foods are not. 
  4. Educate your child about any of the healthy foods that are unfamiliar to him or her. One of the main reasons kids won’t eat something like hummus or Greek yogurt is because those foods (and brands) are foreign to them. Creating a familiarity with the foods by eating them at home will make kids more inclined to purchase them at school!

Add Some Pizzazz! 

Part of the temptation of unhealthy school foods, is that they come in bright packaging or are portrayed through the media as desirable (just count the number of pizza commercials during a tv show). Rather than ban these foods and turn nutritious eating into a negative, try adding in some pizzaz to the healthy foods!

Here are some great suggestions inspired by the bloggers at Momtastic & Fuel Up to Play:

  • Mix up the sandwich by switching up the bread: Use subs, tortillas, marble rye bread, or even whole-wheat bagels to add some flair to your sandwiches! 
  • Use shapes: Cut sandwiches, fruit, or veggies into your kid’s initials or fun shapes like stars and hearts!
  • Unpack a salad: Put the ingredients to a salad in separate bags and pack one large bag for your kids to put in all the items (including dressing) and shake, shake, shake it until it’s ready to be eaten!
  • Fun with eggs: Pack a hard-boiled egg (with the shell still on) and a marker or colored pencil for your child to draw on the egg before peeling and eating!

Keep Calm & Healthy On

It’s easy to get stressed about what your kids are eating at school. The cafeterias we continue to see portrayed in popular culture are rife with grease, sugar and a general attitude of neglect when it comes to food. But there has been great progress in recent years and the true picture is much more balanced when it comes to the battle between healthy and unhealthy options. 

Plus, don’t forget about your allies: cafeteria workers! We cannot stress enough that the image of the grumpy old “lunch lady” ladling mush onto plates is both antiquated and a myth. Today’s cafeteria workers understand the importance of balanced meals and are doing amazing work to keep our kids healthy in school. Check out this video from the Food Network show, Chopped, for proof of what we’re talking about: 

We highlight the cafeteria worker to show that you are not in this alone. In fact, the entire country is getting more and more committed to changing the face of school lunches and the childhood obesity epidemic. Trust us, you’re not the only one who wants your kids lead nutritious, healthy lives. 

That being said, put faith into the cafeteria workers at your school, get advice from fellow parents (and TGMC!) about best practices for healthy eating, and give your kids the knowledge they need and the credit they deserve that, if given the option, they just might pick that apple over the bag of chips. 

Sources: State of Obesity | Family Doctor | Momtastic | Fuel Up to Play


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