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Healthy Lunches, Healthy Students

Who knew the simple school lunch served in thousands of American schools would turn out to be a hotbed of controversy?

Getting Kids to Eat Healthy continued...

That's one reason parental involvement -- both at home and at school -- is so important.

"Not every parent can come to school for a lunch, but that's one great way a parent can get involved," McDonald says. "As a food service manager, I'm always happy to make arrangements for a parent to visit at lunch. They see what the students are eating. They get to see what has changed. The student sees that eating healthy food is important to the parent. That's a powerful lesson."

Parental pressure is even forcing some changes in the widely criticized practice of having vending machines in schools, most of which sell sodas and junk food. Many schools use vending-machine proceeds to supplement after-school programs.

"More than 90% of high schools have vending machines, and that is a real problem," says Stanton. "These high-fat, salty, or sugary snacks are everything we don't want students to substitute for real food. But they make money for the schools."

While the machines are staying, parents are pushing to make changes in what the machines offer. Instead of only offering soda, some machines will have fruit juice, too. Similarly, alongside the Ding Dongs and Kit Kats, some schools are including healthier choices such as whole-grain granola bars.

"It's a start," says McDonald. "And it's parents that have the clout to keep the trend moving toward healthier foods, even if it comes one step at a time."

Packing Safe School Lunches

So what if you're making lunch at home? Here are simple food rules, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, for sending a safe lunch to school:

  • Keep everything clean when packing the lunch. That not only goes for the food, but also food preparation surfaces, hands, and utensils. Use hot, soapy water. Keep family pets away from kitchen counters. Wash your hands before you prepare or eat food.
  • Keep cold foods cold in an insulated lunch box. When packing lunches, include either freezer gel packs, cold food items such as fruit, or small frozen juice packs. Place meat or egg sandwiches between cold items. Sandwiches can also be made ahead of time and kept refrigerated or frozen before placing in the lunch box.
  • Keep hot foods hot by using an insulated bottle stored in an insulated lunch box. Fill the bottle with boiling water, let stand for a few minutes, empty, and then put in the hot food. Keep the insulated bottle closed until lunch time to keep the heat in.

For more information on packing safe lunches for school and work, call the USDA Hotline at 1-800-535-4555.

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