Gone are the days of slop-on-the-plate hot lunches. As a result of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program passed in December 2010, your child traded in that side of fries for a more nutritious option, such as baby carrots. The focus of the school lunch program is not only about filling kids’ stomachs, but also about providing them with all their daily necessary nutrients.
Breakfast menus are offered at many public schools, and more parents are relying on these services to feed their children. This program hopes to work on the menu items as well as the calorie limit of each meal. Through the menu transformations, schools hope to make their students healthier.
Before this program started, school lunches had fewer regulations than fast food restaurants. As late as 2009, chains such as McDonald’s tested their beef for pathogens ten times more frequently than the United States Department of Agriculture inspected the beef that went into your child’s hamburger patty. As long as the kids were fed, few regulations were put in place—no one had reassessed these regulations for 15 years until last December. As of last December, however, school lunch meat has been held to a much higher standard.
A Healthier Direction
Child nutritionists and those concerned about the health of children in our country now feel their voices have been heard.
One of those voices was a teacher in the Madison area known as Mrs. Q. For one year, Mrs. Q ate what her school was serving for breakfast and lunch and recorded it on her blog, Fed Up With School Lunch: The School Lunch Project. Starting in January 2010, she posted a picture of the meal she ate every day at school. All the menu items were served in microwave containers wrapped in plastic with frightening ingredient lists—ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup in the milk.
Her cry for help was heard not only by concerned parents, but also by legislators. She represented mothers of Wisconsin at a congressional hearing about the sorry state of school lunches, and helped the lunch programs steer back onto a nutritional path.
Since then, lunch programs have increased the nutrition content and started meeting the needs of the growing minority of allergy-suffering children. Common allergens, such as peanuts, are pushed aside. Some schools have even gone so far as to bar students from bringing their own bag lunches to school, fearing that a child may have an allergic reaction due to airborne food particles or lunch food swaps.
These changes to the menu do not guarantee that your child is getting all the nutrition he needs. The school cannot control whether the students actually eat what is dished out to them. According to Wauwatosa lunch lady Bonnie Ikizek, the most common thing left untouched on the tray is that side of veggies. No matter how they are dressed up, veggies will always be veggies in the eyes of a grade schooler, and many times they cannot live up to the pudding cup.
Healthier at Home
Deborah Toy Benzel, Glendale mother of two, says creating and cooking lunches is a good start to healthy eating choices. “Even though my kids don’t have peanut allergies,” she says, “I make them a healthier alternative to the traditional PB&J sandwiches—almond butter topped with real fruit slices. In place of strawberry or raspberry jam, I use thinly slices of fresh strawberries, blueberries or raspberries. My kids love the yummy flavors.”
Take your children to the grocery store produce section to choose fruits and vegetables for their lunch. Not only will they feel more involved, but they will also develop good, life-long eating habits.
However, now that the school lunch programs have steered in a healthier direction, you do not have to feel guilty about the occasional hot lunch.
Mix up lunch
PB&J: Try a sweet sandwich using light cream cheese and sliced strawberries. Not only does it mix up the traditional sandwich, but little Billy won’t have to worry about sending his friend to the nurse with hives.
Pudding: Swap a chocolate pudding snack for a yogurt and fruit combination. Use plain yogurt and your child’s favorite fruit for the perfect lunchbox staple.
Chips: Give lunch a natural crunch with a veggie platter. Use a sectioned plastic container packed with veggie sticks and your child’s favorite dip.
Leftovers: Instead of relying on the traditional plastic-wrapped sandwich, pack a tasty and nutritious pasta salad. Not only is it filling, but it can also be thrown together in minutes from last night’s leftovers.
Pizza wheels: Take the traditional pizza day and spin it. Roll pizza dough, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and any of your child’s favorite toppings together into a fun, bite-sized entree.
Banana dogs: Sure to please any peanut butter lover out there. Take a tortilla, spread it with your child’s favorite PB and wrap a banana inside.
Here’s what some other parents are doing:
Pirate’s Booty (puffed corn with cheese ) is a yummy alternative to snack foods. —Shannon Kilsdonk
My son just started packing lunches and we create our own “lunchable” with fresh cheese, meats and crackers. —Heather Holden Eisenhauer
I pack a snack baggie of various veggies with hummus and a Boca chicken burger cut into strips for an alternative “chicken strip” meal. —Jennifer Hilgendorf
I noticed students make better food choices when there are many small portions. Some ideas I’ve seen are snack-sized containers with strawberries or other fruit in season cut up into easy-to-eat slices, or pea pods or carrots with dip. Crackers with separate toppings such as peanut butter, sausage, shredded cheese and lettuce to make mini sandwiches are a hit too. —Lisa Graebner Orvis
Mine won’t eat sandwiches, which makes lunches harder to pack. I usually pack a variety of finger foods, like string cheese, apple slices, carrots, wheat crackers, yogurt tube. They always eat it right up. —Sara Lyle
This story originally appeared in the August 2011 edition of metroparent magazine.