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School Food: Choose Healthy School Lunches

Yes, it’s back-to-school time. And that means navigating the school cafeteria and school food.

You know deep down inside that you cannot control your child and what he or she eats at school.

But you can lay the ground rules and expectations that give your child the framework for making reasonably nutritious choices.

It’s a golden opportunity for your child!

Have you heard the phrase, “Give control to gain control”?

You can use school lunches to teach and train your child how to make nutritious choices. Let me show you how!

School food: Help Kids Choose Healthy School Lunches

How to Navigate the Lunch Menu

There are several things you should think about if you want to ease into and excel with healthy school lunches.

I know, I know, you don’t want to be too “rule-ish”. Or too controlling.

But, without ground rules or clear guidelines, you could have a child eating a very unbalanced lunch—like all carbs (potato, bread and pasta).

Sadly, I’ve been there.

When my kids were younger, I outlined the foods in their lunch that were most important to eat. I expected them to eat their main entrée, whether it was a sandwich or leftovers, followed by other items in the lunchbox.

To me, the entrée had the lion’s share of the protein and calories, and I wanted to make sure they consumed at least that item.

Other priority foods to eat included fruit, vegetables and a dairy option (milk or non-dairy substitute, such as soy milk).

Set Expectations for Eating

You want your child to eat healthy at school. Be clear that you expect your child to eat most if not all of his lunch and provide some guidance for dealing with chatty friends.

If your child doesn’t get to finish his meal before it’s time to go to recess or back to class, he or she may be hungrier later in the day.

Being hangry can just feel downright yucky, not to mention increase the potential for over-snacking later on.

Teach Your Child How to Choose Healthy School Lunches

Ideal school lunches cover appetite and also help your child focus in the classroom. School lunches usually showcase healthy meal plan essentials such as the entrée, dairy, grains, fruit, and vegetables.

The National School Lunch Program’s meal pattern provides guidelines schools need to follow. School food has to be low in sodium and saturated fat. And schools provide a specific amount of fruit, vegetables, and grains throughout the week.

Unfortunately, these standards count tomato sauce on pizza and french fries as a vegetable serving and juice as a fruit.

But sometimes your child can piece his meal together from several options.

Read: Lunch Box Packing Tips & How Your Child Can Help

Ideally, you want to pick one item from each food group.

Protein Foods

Start with the entrée – it’s usually the protein source and enough calories to give your child the energy to get through the school day,

Protein can be meat, chicken, fish, tofu, or even dairy (the school lunch program puts dairy in the protein group). So, cheese and yogurt do double duty on the school lunch menu as a protein and dairy.

For example, pizza counts as a grain (crust), protein (cheese), and vegetable (tomato sauce).


Bread, pasta, bagels and rolls are the grains you’ll see on a school menu. And some schools have whole grain options. Add a whole wheat roll or slice of bread to an entrée that doesn’t include a grain already. Your child needs carbohydrates for energy and focus!


While 100% fruit juice is considered a fruit serving, whole fruit is the best option. Fruit juice is high in sugar. A burst of energy will end in a crash later. And whole fruit is loaded with fiber!


The school provides vegetables from one of these categories each day: dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes), and starchy vegetables like potatoes (mashed and french fries).

Your child may not have a choice between vegetables each day. Maybe they won’t like the option one day. Your child can take the fruit or a vegetable if they don’t like both options.


Schools now offer sugar-free or low-sugar sports drinks, but water or milk is still the best drink option. While sugar-free sports drinks don’t have sugar, they also don’t have the valuable nutrients your child needs.

Kids’ bones are growing right now! So they need a lot of calcium and vitamin D. Not only is milk an excellent source of calcium, vitamin D, and potassium, it has protein and other nutrients..

Dehydration can lead to headaches and difficulty concentrating. Encourage your child to drink water throughout the day when they’re allowed to, especially after gym or if they play an after-school sport.

90-10 Rule

What about Trading Food at School?

Almost all children trade food at one time or another.

If your child strikes a deal, make sure he follows the “same-same rule:” make an even swap such as a sandwich for a sandwich or entrée; a dessert for a dessert; or a fruit for a fruit.

You get the idea.

Pro Tips for Making Healthy School Lunches

1. Get Organized

When I work with my clients, I use a School Lunch Planner. This helps parents and kids hit most of the food groups each day and rotate food groups and specific foods throughout the week.

Variety is front and center!

2. Make a List of Liked Foods

I tell my personal clients to make a list of liked foods, especially if they have a picky eater.

Having a “liked” list handy can help them decide when they get to choose at school.

[Get my workbook: Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods if you have a picky eater — it’s great for all ages and degrees of picky eating.]

3. Don’t Stress Out

Don’t let the lunch menu stress you or your child out!

There are so many opportunities to teach and train your child about nutrition! School lunch is just one way to show your child how to make healthy choices to satisfy hunger and have the energy and focus to thrive during the school day.

Allowing your child to make lunch choices is one of the best ways to help teach and train your child about nutritious foods. I talk about this further in this episode of the podcast.

Self-esteem comes from being good at something. Letting your child make his own lunch choice is just one way to build up your child.

Need more help with your child’s snacking? Check out this resource!

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