The Drama of Healthy Lunches

Have you been following the news about school lunches lately? Yikes. The drama! As federal guidelines continue to be tweaked, requiring more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, there’s been more than a little push back from parents, schools, and foodservice companies that manage school cafeterias. I, for one, don’t see what the big deal really is. There are plenty of times in a child’s life when he or she is subjected to choices made by adults in his or her best interest; this is simply an occasion where adults need to ensure kids are given healthy choices. If a family is facing poverty, a school lunch may be the only balanced meal available that day to the children in that household. While I keep hearing the argument that “parents are free to pack an alternate lunch if their child doesn’t like what’s being served”, I have a hard time with this logic. For children receiving a free or reduced price lunch, there may not be enough resources at home to pack a lunch each day. These kids may have to eat what the school serves, and it becomes even more important for these children to have a meal rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Not to mention, I would think that parents who do choose to pack a lunch from home would also want their children to be eating a nutritious, well-balanced meal. In short, I don’t see that logic for providing junk food for lunch.

I am a parent, and I’ve worked in many schools; I get it that kids can be resistant to healthy eating. I do, really. I’ve heard teachers complain about seeing the salad bar passed over and the whole-grain roll tossed in the trash. My own children have literally cried at the sight of broccoli on their plates. But does this mean we should abandon our efforts and serve the kids what they will readily eat, counting ketchup as a vegetable serving and providing sodium-laden pizza and hot dogs? No! We need to consider the role of education in making healthy lifestyle choices. What we put into our children’s bodies is directly correlated to being ready and able to learn at school. Instead of throwing our hands in the air and insisting that kids will refuse healthier options, perhaps we should consider a more holistic approach. Maybe we can think of ways to educate children, from a young age, about why certain foods help our bodies grow and function and others don’t. Perhaps we can help them understand that healthy foods make them stronger, smarter, and can help them be better athletes. According to this article (and many others), “Research consistently shows that children who have initially rejected a food must be exposed to it at least 8 to 10 times for the food to be accepted.” Persistence will pay off.  We shouldn’t give up on this, parents and educators. 

Does your child eat school lunch? Have you seen positive changes? Has your child reacted to them, either positively or negatively? I have not-so-fond memories of cardboard pizza slices and colorless, canned wax beans from my school lunch past…I’m hoping things have improved in the past 30 years!

14 thoughts on “The Drama of Healthy Lunches

  1. This is an issue that begins at home IMHO. My son (7) eats school lunch from time to time & always with chocolate milk. The proposed van annoys me bc I’d much rather have him have chocolate milk than juice because at least there’s some protein in the milk. (Why isn’t water an option either? He doesn’t have that choice for hot lunch). He’s also a normal kid who buys lunch on the fun days – pizza, nuggets, etc – and that’s fine with me because he eats well otherwise.

    I think our collective focus shouldn’t be on school lunch but about overall eating habits from an early age so then the kids aren’t throwing out veggies & fruit and understand the concept of everything in moderation. And a big ditto to the comment above about making foods kids like even healthier.

  2. If I heard on the news correctly, it’s the dairy industry that is fighting the chocolate milk ban the hardest. You know, the ones who stand to lose profit money should the ban be in effect. It’s crazy how much influence corporations and industries have on our kids’ food choices in schools.

  3. I haven’t really been keeping up on the school food wars in terms of healthy eating. What I have heard people complain about is portion size. With the move towards healthier foods, some felt that the amount of food being provided wasn’t enough for many kids to make it through the day, especially those in middle school/high school and playing sports. My immediate reaction was “well, buy a double lunch… or pack more food from home.” However, as you pointed out above, for those getting reduced or free lunch due to economic hardships, it might be the only good meal they get all day. I can see how this would be a problem for many adolescent boys – I mean, have you seen those kids eat?! I am still in dismay over the amount of food my twig of a brother could pack away back then. On the flip side, you don’t want to provide so much food as to contribute to the obesity issues in less active kids. I don’t know what the right solution is to this, but I can understand both sides of the argument….

  4. And what I really don’t understand is why there isn’t more conversation about making the foods kids love in a healthier way. If pizza is made with whole grains, real vegetables, and less grease, it can be a pretty healthy option for a kid’s lunch. I don’t have a problem with chocolate milk in general, but the versions of flavored milk they serve in school have way more sugar and fillers than necessary.

  5. Amen Sarah! Many years ago, I worked on the legislation in CT that banned soda and junk food in schools. You would have thought we were banning the very oxygen children breathe! The junk food lobby came out in full force spending hundreds of thousands of $$ to prevent this bill from passing. Thankfully it did pass. I never understood the logic in allowing our kids to have access to junk at school, when many of us don’t allow it at home. What message is that sending to kids? Great post.

    1. Wow!! It’s crazy that there is such push back on this. Part of me thinks it’s all thanks to REALLY good marketing and lobbying on the part of the corporations that own the “junk food” labels. I just don’t get why it would be a GOOD idea to sell kids unhealthy food in school. I will never understand!

  6. great article. It is best to educate children and families on healthy choices. Our 9 year old packs his own lunch with supervision. I browse at the lunch menu offered at school and it is the same each week; tacos, pizza, etc. I had lunch with our son last week as part of a Mother’s Day celebration in school. There were numerous kids who threw out the fruit and vegetables that come as sides with the offered entree.

    1. That’s great that he packs his own lunch!! It’s so important to let them be the ones making the choices. Awesome! So sad to hear the fruits and veggies are still getting tossed out at school- ugh!

  7. Love this piece. Well written, well argued, well reasoned. I particularly love your point that we’re helping to educate kids about food — whether they particularly love broccoli or not.

    1. Thanks so much for saying so. 🙂 I would love to see more of a focus on healthy eating in schools, especially on where our food comes from and how it affects our health!

  8. It is so hard as a mom to get nutritious things in my kids bodies. I am all for the “it takes a village” approach on this front. Thank you.

    1. It really, really does. I wish everyone could be on board– it would sure make it easier at home if there was a consistent message in schools, stores, ads, etc…wouldn’t it?

  9. This is a GREAT topic! One that is surprisingly heated on both sides. I am in full agreement with you. Did you know that there is a law waiting for Gov Malloy’s signature that apparently would ban chocolate milk from schools? Wow, people are REALLY upset about that and he’s probably going to veto it. The folks that want to keep the chocolate milk in schools were quoted saying that if we remove flavored milk kids will stop drinking it and therefore not get the nutrients in milk. I see what they’re saying but why isn’t anyone talking about the sugar content of flavored milk? I don’t have a strong feeling either way on the milk issue, it’s just been interesting to watch.

    1. I know! I’ve been following this closely. I drank chocolate milk as a child, true, but we also had more recess…less hours indoors…and no homework until 6th grade. So, overall, I was more active. Also, there were a LOT less sugar-filled foods at home. I also don’t have a strong feeling either way on this part, but I would not care even remotely if they banned it. My kids could still have the occasional glass at home, and life would tick on…it really would, haha. 🙂

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