Why My Kids’ School Lunch Is Unhealthy (+ What I’m Doing About It)

Why My Kids’ School Lunch Is Unhealthy (+ What I’m Doing About It)

When my older daughter started school three years ago, another mom in our community who already had kids in the school system gave me a word of caution: wait until you see what they serve for school lunch.

My husband and I had already decided that we would pack lunch from home because no matter what they served in school, we knew it wouldn’t be the healthy, homemade meals she was already eating.

Although I knew it wasn’t likely that the schools were serving roasted salmon and fresh green salads everyday, I never thought it would be as bad as it is.

When I took a look at the school lunch menu I was shocked.

Foods like hot dogs, tater tots and chocolate milk were on the menu every single week.

After the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program made some positive changes to their menus like adding more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, limiting the amount of calories and reducing the amount of sodium in meals.

Take a closer look at most school lunch menus however, and I’m sure you’ll find that just because the meals meet certain dietary requirements, the foods that are served are not foods our kids should be eating.

And now that the Trump administration has rolled back the school lunch standards, schools have even more flexibility to serve unhealthy foods that meet a budget but only worsen our kids’ health.

Although I can’t say that my kids’ school has relaxed the Obama-era standards, their menus still fall seriously short.

Here are some reasons why my kids’ school lunch is unhealthy and what I’m trying to do to improve it.

Junk food is served as a “snack”

My kids’ school encourages parents to have lunch with their kids, so from time to time I do.

Last year while I was sitting with my daughter in the cafeteria, one of the cafeteria aids walked up to the front of the room and with mic in hand, announced it was snack time.

“Snack?,” I asked my 5-year-old. It was only 15 minutes into their 30 minute lunch time.

When I hear the word snack, I think about something small that tides my kids over until the next meal and is most certainly something they eat between meals.

Yet what my kids’ school dubs a snack, is actually a junk food treat: chips, ice cream, popsicles crackers and cookies.

One of the foods they sell are Nacho Cheese Doritos.

Sure, it satisfies the National School Lunch Program guidelines because it has whole grains (corn), but it’s processed, made with GMOs and contains artificial ingredients and artificial food dyes.

Take maltodextrin, which has an even higher glycemic index than sugar and evidence suggests it can alter gut bacteria and lead to allergic reactions and food intolerances. This is definitely not something our kids should be eating, especially during the school day.

Oh and did I mention, less than 3 hours later when the kids are packing up for the day, they get another snack?

Most of the food is fake

Nearly all of the school lunch items that are offered are highly processed, made with factory-farmed animal products, and are frozen foods that come out of a package and are re-heated. 

Take a look at some of the foods they sell:

  • crispy chicken patty          
  • general tso’s chicken
  • beef nachos with tortilla chips 
  • hot dogs                  
  • tater tots
  • processed deli meats                                                  
  • popcorn chicken
  • chicken nuggets
  • mozzarella sticks
  • pizza
  • hamburgers and cheeseburgers
  • French toast sticks

While they do serve fruits and vegetables every day, it’s not exactly fresh. The packages of apple slices for example, are prepared with preservatives that give them a 21-day shelf life.

Totally unbalanced

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a healthy plate is made up of 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 protein and 1/4 whole grains.

In my kids’ school, the kids are required to pick a fruit or a vegetable, but I doubt it makes up half the plate. They do offer salads as the main dish every day, but I’m sure the amount of kids that purchase salads is negligible, if non-existent.

Besides, some of the meal options seem totally unbalanced and only meet the requirements.

Take the yogurt or a cheese stick with a bagel meal and the macaroni and cheese with a wheat bread stick meal—not exactly the healthy, balanced meals we should be teaching our kids to eat.

A lack of healthy fats

Healthy fats like those found in fish, avocado and olive oil are essential to kids health, but they’re not a major part of the school lunch menu. The one caveat? The sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich.

Sugar everywhere

While fruits and vegetables and foods with whole grains are offered, the school lunch menu has several items that are high in sugar, including:


Free cookies

Despite how unhealthy the lunch menu is, my kids are allowed to purchase it every once in a while.

Although I want them to eat healthy, whole foods most of the time, I also don’t want school lunch to be a power struggle or something they think is forbidden, which can create unhealthy eating habits down the line.

Nevertheless, I was blindsided when my daughters told me that after purchasing lunch one day, they were given free cookies. As I came to learn, kids are given free cookies on Fridays and on their birthdays.

You might think I sound like an uptight mom, but I don’t understand why the school (or the food service provider) thinks it’s OK to give them cookies without my permission.

My kids can have cookies, but not during the school day.

Junk food is served as a “snack”

My kids’ school encourages parents to have lunch with their kids, so from time to time I do.

Last year while I was sitting with my daughter in the cafeteria, one of the cafeteria aids walked up to the front of the room and with mic in hand, announced it was snack time.

“Snack?,” I asked my 5-year-old. It was only 15 minutes into their 30 minute lunch time.

When I hear the word snack, I think about something small that tides my kids over until the next meal and is most certainly something they eat between meals.

Yet what my kids’ school dubs a snack, is actually a junk food treat: chips, ice cream, popsicles crackers and cookies.

One of the foods they sell are Nacho Cheese Doritos.

Sure, it satisfies the National School Lunch Program guidelines because it has whole grains (corn), but it’s processed, made with GMOs and contains artificial ingredients and artificial food dyes.

Take maltodextrin, which has an even higher glycemic index than sugar and evidence suggests it can alter gut bacteria and lead to allergic reactions and food intolerances. This is definitely not something our kids should be eating, especially during the school day.

Oh and did I mention, less than 3 hours later when the kids are packing up for the day, they get another snack?

Most of the food is fake

Nearly all of the school lunch items that are offered are highly processed, made with factory-farmed animal products, and are frozen foods that come out of a package and are re-heated. 

Take a look at some of the foods they sell:

  • crispy chicken patty          
  • general tso’s chicken
  • beef nachos with tortilla chips 
  • hot dogs                  
  • tater tots
  • processed deli meats                                                  
  • popcorn chicken
  • chicken nuggets
  • mozzarella sticks
  • pizza
  • hamburgers and cheeseburgers
  • French toast sticks

While they do serve fruits and vegetables every day, it’s not exactly fresh. The packages of apple slices for example, are prepared with preservatives that give them a 21-day shelf life.

Totally unbalanced

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a healthy plate is made up of 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 protein and 1/4 whole grains.

In my kids’ school, the kids are required to pick a fruit or a vegetable, but I doubt it makes up half the plate. They do offer salads as the main dish every day, but I’m sure the amount of kids that purchase salads is negligible, if non-existent.

Besides, some of the meal options seem totally unbalanced and only meet the requirements.

Take the yogurt or a cheese stick with a bagel meal and the macaroni and cheese with a wheat bread stick meal—not exactly the healthy, balanced meals we should be teaching our kids to eat.

A lack of healthy fats

Healthy fats like those found in fish, avocado and olive oil are essential to kids health, but they’re not a major part of the school lunch menu. The one caveat? The sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich.

Sugar everywhere

While fruits and vegetables and foods with whole grains are offered, the school lunch menu has several items that are high in sugar, including:


Free cookies

Despite how unhealthy the lunch menu is, my kids are allowed to purchase it every once in a while.

Although I want them to eat healthy, whole foods most of the time, I also don’t want school lunch to be a power struggle or something they think is forbidden, which can create unhealthy eating habits down the line.

Nevertheless, I was blindsided when my daughters told me that after purchasing lunch one day, they were given free cookies. As I came to learn, kids are given free cookies on Fridays and on their birthdays.

You might think I sound like an uptight mom, but I don’t understand why the school (or the food service provider) thinks it’s OK to give them cookies without my permission.

My kids can have cookies, but not during the school day.

How To Pack a Healthy School Lunch

How To Pack a Healthy School Lunch

Sending your kid off in the morning with a healthy school lunch can be better than school lunches you’ll find in the cafeteria, but getting the right balance of nutrition is key.

Surprisingly, most school lunches made at home are worse than those kids purchase at school. According to a July 2014 study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, only 27 percent of the lunches from more than 600 kids surveyed met at least three of the five National School Lunch Program standards.

The good news is that packing lunch doesn’t have to be difficult. Here, learn which foods you should focus on and how much and how to make packing a healthy school lunch a breeze.

Plan ahead

Without time to plan healthy school lunches, chances are you’ll resort to PB&J and processed, packaged foods everyday. Making a grocery list and having a list of healthy school lunch ideas will take the guesswork out of school lunch in the morning.

 

Start with fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables are high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, which will help to satisfy your kid’s hunger and help him feel fuller longer. When packing your kid’s lunch box, 50 percent should be made up of both fruits and vegetables—not just fruit.

Do your best to “eat the rainbow” and offer a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. If your kid is a picky eater however, pack fruits and vegetables you know he’ll eat. After a few weeks, start to add in small amounts (a teaspoon will do) of new fruits and vegetables you’d like him to try. If you’re consistent, he may eventually come around and they may even become his new favorite foods.

Pick a protein

Protein is important for your kid’s growth and development and meals with protein keep hunger at bay, balance your child’s blood sugar and give her enough energy to keep up at school.

Protein should make up 1/4 of a healthy school lunch but you’ll want to focus on lean, quality protein sources instead of processed foods like deli meats and cheeses or hot dogs.

Try chicken, beef, turkey, beans, edamame, tempeh, eggs, fish and seafood. If you’re worried about the mercury levels in fish, find out which types of fish are safe for your kids.

Choose whole grains

Grains should make up about 1/4 of a healthy school lunch box. When packing whole grains, think about other grains your child will eat that day since 50 percent of grains in his diet should be whole grains.

Whole grains have vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and filling fiber, which are stripped from refined grains. Try whole grain bread, pasta, brown rice, quinoa or another type of gluten-free grain.

Add calcium-rich foods

The USDA MyPlate recommends milk or sources of dairy with meals because of the calcium they provide. If your kids are dairy-free, or you’re trying to avoid dairy because it’s inflammatory, they can still get plenty of calcium from green leafy vegetables, chia seeds and other calcium-rich foods that aren’t dairy.

Focus on plant-based foods

Studies show plant-based diets are one of the healthiest because they’re high in vitamins and minerals, anti-inflammatory and prevent constipation.

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, sweet potatoes and nuts and seeds are all plant-based foods to include in your child’s lunch box.

Include healthy fats

Omega-3 fatty acids are part of a healthy diet and support your child’s brain health and memory.

Salmon and sardines are low in mercury and good sources of both protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Or try olives, a mist of olive oil on salad or vegetables, avocado and nuts and seeds, which are all excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids too.

Get a bento box

Kids love choices and a reusable bento box is a great way to serve up a variety of foods at lunch time and also ensure that you have healthy portions of all the major food groups.

Re-think treats

Packing a cookie with an “I love you!” note makes you and your kid feel happy, but most treats you’ll find in the grocery story are high in sugar, sodium and artificial ingredients, not to mention, kids don’t need them while they’re trying to learn.

 

If you decide to pack treats, read labels carefully or consider your own homemade healthy versions. Also, re-think what a treat could be. Applesauce, dried fruit or chocolate covered fresh fruit are just as sweet but a bit healthier.

 

Teaching balance is also a key component of raising kids who are healthy eaters so consider including a treat once a week instead of everyday, for example.

 

13 Ways To Add More Vegetables To School Lunches

13 Ways To Add More Vegetables To School Lunches

Getting your kids to eat more vegetables any time of the day is always a challenge, but school lunch can be even harder especially when most kids don’t pack vegetables, refuse to eat vegetables or end up throwing their vegetables in the garbage.

If you want to raise kids who love to eat vegetables, it’s important to consistently offer them at every meal.

The good news is that it’s not as hard as you think.

Here are 13 ways to add more vegetables to kids’ school lunches.

1. Wrap it up

Ditch the sandwich and make a roll up with sliced turkey, cheese and lettuce or make a lettuce wrap and put your protein inside. Or add grilled or sautéed vegetables to a tortilla, burrito or wrap.

2. Add a dip

Kids love to dip so pairing a healthy dip with raw, cut-up veggies is a great way to add more vegetables to kids’ school lunches.

Try hummus, bean dip, a vegetable dip or salsa. Consider making your own homemade dip with fresh ingredients so you know exactly what your kids are eating. If you purchase a store-bought dip, read labels carefully because many have artificial ingredients and are too high in fat.

3. Make grilled cheese with vegetables

Add spinach, diced broccoli or slices of pepper to a grilled cheese sandwich made with whole grain bread and you have a fiber-filled lunch your kids will love.

4. Add veggies to pasta, rice or another grain

Mix in last night’s leftover vegetables with whole-wheat pasta, couscous, brown rice or another whole grain like quinoa.

5. Make veggie quesadillas

Quesadillas take minutes to make and lend themselves to so many types of vegetables. Encourage your kids to have a hand in making their own lunches by putting out a “buffet” of vegetables and letting them make their own.

6. Puree vegetables and add them to sauces

I don’t believe in pureeing vegetables as a sneaky way to get your kids to eat them, but it can be a great way to get extra nutrition in their diets and add more vegetables to their lunches.

Carrots, zucchini and eggplant make a great addition to tomato sauce and roasted butternut squash can be added to homemade macaroni and cheese, for example.

7. Bake vegetable “fries”

Slice zucchini, eggplant, yucca, carrot, or jicama, spray with some olive oil and roast them in the oven on high heat. You can also dip vegetables in egg and breadcrumb for more flavor and texture.

8. Batch cook soups, stews and chili

Making a large batch of your kid’s favorite soup, stew or chili is an easy way to have several meals throughout the week and add more vegetables to school lunches.

9. Whip up an omelet, quiche or frittata

Eggs are one of the healthiest foods you can feed your kids and adding vegetables to an omelet, quiche or frittata also makes for easy and healthy kids’ school lunches.

10. Bake veggies into bread

Add shredded zucchini, carrots or pureed pumpkin to your favorite bread recipe as a healthy treat for your kid’s lunch box.

11. Swap vegetables for grains

Instead of pasta or rice, swap in cauliflower “rice” and spiralized veggies and a protein for a healthy school lunch.

12. Assemble kabobs

Kids love food on sticks and kabobs can be an easy to assemble, healthy school lunch. Add sliced peppers, mushrooms, squash, onions, cherry tomatoes, and meat or tofu for a healthy portion of vegetables.

13. Add vegetables to pizza

Pizza may not be the healthiest option for kids’ school lunches but if you’re going to serve it, make the most of it by adding vegetables as a topping.

8 Healthy School Lunch Ideas That Aren’t Sandwiches  Ditch the bread and serve up these healthy school lunch options

8 Healthy School Lunch Ideas That Aren’t Sandwiches

Ditch the bread and serve up these healthy school lunch options

PB&J, turkey and cheese or tuna fish sandwiches make for a fast and easy school lunch but if your kids are gluten-free, you’re trying to cut down on the amount of bread they eat, they don’t like sandwiches or you’re simply looking for more school lunch ideas that aren’t sandwiches, there are so many healthy, delicious, and easy options.

Here are 8.

1. Beans and legumes

Beans and legumes are one of the healthiest foods you can feed your kids. An excellent source of folate, zinc, iron and magnesium, they have both protein and fiber to satisfy your kids’ hunger for hours. There are also so many varieties, you’re bound to find at least one your kids will love.

To make packing school lunch easy, I make a large batch of lentil soup for the week. I then re-heat and pour the soup into a thermos for lunch. You can also serve beans alone or incorporate them into quinoa, brown rice or pasta dishes or make a batch of homemade bean burgers.

2. Lettuce wraps

With a lettuce wrap, you’ll get an extra dose of vitamins, minerals and fiber and a nice texture without the bread. You can also use the same ingredients you would when you make sandwiches: sliced turkey, egg salad, leftover roasted chicken or chili meat.

 

3. Roll ups

If your kids are like mine, they’ll love a roll-up for school lunch and they won’t miss the bread. Roll-up sliced turkey, ham, or roast beef, cheese and lettuce and you’ll have an easy and delicious lunch.

4. Eggs

An excellent source of protein, 9 essential amino acids and choline which supports memory, eggs are one of the best school lunch ideas that aren’t sandwiches.

Eggs cook quickly and are so easy to incorporate into practically any dish. Try scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, make egg salad, egg “muffins,” a quiche or frittata.

One of my kids’ favorite ways to eat eggs is a lightened up version of egg fried rice: incorporate scrambled eggs with brown rice, edamame and a splash of soy sauce.

5. Spring rolls

Spring rolls are simple to pull together for lunch and a great swap for sandwiches. Grab a package of spring roll wrappers, add a protein, your kids’ favorite vegetables and seasonings and lunch is ready.

6. Salad

I know what you’re thinking: my kid will never eat a salad. Yet packing a salad for lunch is a great way to get in several servings of vegetables in one meal.

Making a salad can also be a fun activity with your kids because they can pick the ingredients, help you chop and toss the salad and add the dressing. When kids have a hand in making their meals, they’re more likely to eat them.

If your kids aren’t salad eaters, start small with a side salad alongside one of their favorite foods. Experiment with different add-ins like:

  • Peppers, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, etc.
  • Tomatoes
  • Leftover meat or fish
  • Tofu
  • Hard boiled eggs
  • Edamame
  • Beans
  • Cheese
  • Nuts and/or seeds
  • Fruit (fresh or dried)
  • Avocado

7. Tempeh

My children and I eat a predominately plant-based diet so to ensure we get enough protein, we often eat tempeh. It’s not every day or even every week, but it’s one of the best school lunch options that aren’t sandwiches.

Tempeh can be used in most recipes that call for meat but you can also simply marinate and bake it.

8. Soup

In the cooler months, soup can be a healthy and delicious school lunch. If you’re inclined to make your own homemade soup, you can incorporate several servings of vegetables—whole or pureed.

If you buy soup in a can, box or one that’s prepared in the store, read labels because most soups you’ll find are high in sodium.

5 Healthy After-School Snacks

5 Healthy After-School Snacks

Kids love their after-school snacks.

If your kids are like mine, they come home from school and head right to the refrigerator for an after-school snack. Despite eating breakfast, lunch AND a snack, somehow they’re (apparently) famished.

After-school snacks can tide your kids over for awhile but if they eat filling foods or overeat, they won’t be hungry come dinner. Instead, afternoon snacks with a combination of protein and fiber will satisfy their hunger without making them too full.

1. Kale chips

healthy-after-school-snacks

I don’t believe in sneaking vegetables into meals or making faces out of food so your kids will eat but I don’t see the harm in preparing one type of food in various ways.

If you can’t get your kid to eat green leafy vegetables like spinach or kale, try making kale chips and watch as your kids will devour them. The next time you make a kale salad or a meal with cooked kale, they may be more likely to try it.

Kale is nutrient dense and an excellent source of vitamin A and lutein for healthy eyes and a good source of calcium for healthy teeth and bones.

2. Hummus and Jicama

healthy-after-school-snacks

If you’re trying to add more plant-based foods in your family’s diet, hummus is a great food to serve for after-school snacks.

Chickpeas are a great source of protein, fiber and iron and sesame seeds which are used in tahini are an excellent source of minerals like zinc, copper and calcium for bone health.

Although you can serve any vegetable with hummus, I like jicama (pronounced HEE-kah-ma), which tastes like a combination of a pear and a water chestnut. Jicama is a great source of vitamin C, potassium, iron, calcium and filling fiber.

3. Celery

healthy-after-school-snacks

A rich source of vitamins and antioxidants, celery is one of the healthiest vegetables you can feed your kids. One cup contains an amazing 5 grams of fiber which will keep your kid satiated and even prevent constipation.

If your kids like foods with a crunch, celery is a great one to swap in for chips. Add a bit of peanut butter or almond butter for protein and a delicious after-school snack.

4. Greek Yogurt

healthy-after-school-snacks

Yogurt is a good source of protein but most yogurts, especially those marketed to kids, have a ton of sugar.

Instead of flavored yogurt, serve your kids plain, Greek yogurt topped with fresh berries like raspberries which are an excellent source of fiber, have a low glycemic load and are super-tasty.

5. Green Smoothies

healthy-after-school-snacks

Like kale, serving a smoothie isn’t a way to sneak vegetables but it can be another way to get in a serving.

A good rule of thumb: the 80/20 rule. Eighty-percent green leafy vegetables and 20 percent fruit. Add some chia seeds for protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, which are important for brain health.