Eating healthy at the school cafeteria

December 13, 2007

Tips for better lunchtime nutrition

When buying lunch at the school cafeteria, children can often choose an unhealthy mix of foods or buy the same kid-pleasing entrée, such as a hot dog or pizza, day after day.

Registered dietitian Ronda Sisak from the Dean LEAN Families Program at Children's Medical Center urges parents to talk to their children, even kindergartners, about making healthier menu choices.

"Bad food choices in grade school can escalate into unhealthy eating habits by middle school and high school that are hard to break," Sisak said. "Teaching your child how to navigate a menu can improve the nutritional value of their meals and help build self confidence when it comes to recognizing healthy food choices.

"It's all about learning to balance," Sisak said. "Eating a school lunch will not ruin a child's health, but if your child eats pizza every day at school and then stops by McDonald's after school or sports practice, the long-term effects of this high-fat diet could be serious."

Six tips that make a difference

  1. Encourage children to make good choices by looking the menu over before they leave the house. Ask which meals are your child's favorites. Recommend items that are healthier like green vegetables and fruits with the entrée, but be willing to allow your child to buy favorite lunch items, even if that includes a hot dog. Let it be known that orange drinks, chewy fruit snacks, or fruit roll-ups do not count as fruits.
  2. Lunch should include only one serving of any item. Parents are often surprised to find out their child drinks two cartons of chocolate milk at lunch. Encourage your child to choose low-fat plain milk or water to drink. The calories and sugar in chocolate milk, juices and soda can add up quickly.
  3. Allow limited purchases, especially for younger children. Some schools don't control how much children spend on meal credit cards. Don't give kids extra money to spend beyond the daily meal credit.
  4. Encourage your child to eat three meals a day, planning the after-school snack based on what the child ate earlier that day. Skipping breakfast and/or lunch will only make them famished – setting them up to raid the fridge, eat too much junk food or to overeat too close to their dinnertime.
  5. Teach your child that there are no "bad" or forbidden foods, but that each food choice has a consequence. It is important that parents not be critical or judgmental about their child's food choices. If your child has a hamburger and fries for lunch, that's the high-fat meal for the day, and dinner shouldn't include a lot of fat or sugar calories. The goal is to encourage honesty about what they eat, especially in younger children. If they confess having purchased nuggets, fries and a hotdog, encourage them to choose an additional healthy selection next time – adding a piece of fruit or salad with the lunch.
  6. Contribute healthy snacks to school events. Schools often have events such as birthday celebrations or offer snacks that are loaded with sugar and carbohydrates. These extra calories add up and the practice encourages over-snacking. Talk to teachers about serving healthy alternatives instead of cupcakes. Offer fruit or other healthy choices for dessert at home on days when kids have parties at school.

Guide to Healthier Eating

This online interactive guide was created to help children be more aware of nutritional content when choosing their meals. It has scenarios for dining out, choosing what to eat while at school and how to choose healthy snacks when at home. Click here to get started.


Dean LEAN Families Program at Children's Medical Center is the first certified pediatric weight management education program in the nation that educates children and their families to create a healthy lifestyle through an awareness of nutrition and to help change behaviors associated with unhealthy eating habits.