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Here are 5 tips to encourage kids to make better food choices during the school day.

You serve your kids healthy food when they’re home. But once they head to school, you don’t have much control over what they choose to eat. Between the snacks they trade with their friends and the fact that they’re free to eat – or not eat – what’s offered in the cafeteria or in their lunch box, you can only hope they’ll make good choices.

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“We can’t expect a child to make a menu, and likewise, we can’t hover over their every intake. For example, with my own children, we keep the school menu posted on our refrigerator. Each night, we choose to either eat school lunch or bring our own. We talk about ‘what would you choose to eat?’ If the answer is ‘a roll and an ice cream,’ consider packing a lunch. I have my children pack their lunch, and ask that they pack a protein, a fruit or vegetable, and a dairy product. I supervise, but let them make the final choices and that way, the foods are more likely to be consumed.” -Jennifer T. Guidroz, MD, FAAP, Pediatric Medicine

Studies show schools have improved the health of their food selections since 2012, when updated rules went into effect for the National School Lunch Program. But research shows that even though children may be getting healthier foods on their trays, many aren’t eating them.

So what can you do as a parent to make it more likely your child will have a nutritious lunch at school?

  1. Look over the menu together. Go through the school menu with your kids and have them pick out healthy choices they like instead of just pointing out foods you think they should avoid.
  2. Choose days to pack lunch. Plan to pack lunch on days they don’t like what’s offered. Give kids a few healthy options and let them decide what makes the final cut. Avoid packing too many snacks and skip the sugary drinks. One study found packed lunches had more calories, fat and sugar and less protein, fiber and calcium than school lunches.
  3. Go for balance. It’s likely your kids won’t choose healthy foods all of the time but discuss the idea of balance with them. For example, if they want chocolate milk, they should skip the sugary dessert. If they want the dessert, they should stick to water or plain milk.
  4. Don’t forget about snacks. Pack healthy snacks that will fill kids up and have some staying power. Include lean protein, healthy fat and complex carbs. Good choices include low-fat cheese with fruit, hummus and carrots or turkey rolled up in whole wheat tortillas.
  5. Model healthy eating at home. If your child is used to making good food choices at home, they’re more likely to do the same when they’re on their own. Get kids involved in selecting and trying healthy foods so this habit becomes second nature to them.

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Date Last Reviewed: February 19, 2019

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Nora Minno, RD, CDN

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