What Are Your Kids Having for Lunch?
How to help your children eat healthy at school
When it comes to lunches for her kids, Rallie McAllister, MD, has a house
rule: "We take our lunch to school. No questions asked."
Getting kids to take a healthy lunch from home is one way to fight the
high-fat, high-sugar, and high-sodium offerings found in many school cafeterias
and vending machines, says McAllister, author of Healthy Lunchbox: The
Working Mom's Guide to Keeping You and Your Kids Trim.
But even McAllister -- a family practice doctor in Kingsport, Tenn., who
specializes in nutrition and weight loss -- concedes that in the end, parents
have to let kids make a lot of their own food choices. "You can't be
completely hard-nosed about this," she says.
The crusade to get children to eat more healthfully during the school day is
one that McAllister and other health-care professionals, educators, and parents
are serious about -- and with good reason.
Public school lunches must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for
nutrition (for example, no more than 30% of their total calories can come from
fat). And many schools take pains to make sure their offerings include healthy
choices. But that's not necessarily translating to our children eating better
One reason, many experts say, is the "a la carte" items offered
alongside the standard school lunch, or sold at in-school snack bars or vending
machines (often, proceeds go to help the schools meet their budgets). Further,
some physicians' groups believe that the USDA guidelines don't go far enough to
ensure that children eat healthfully.
Several recent studies have offered less-than-encouraging news:
- A 2003 study by University of California-San Diego researchers found that
middle school students were taking in too much fat at school. The researchers
estimated that the average student was consuming 26 total grams of fat at
school -- although a healthy figure would be more like 20 grams. Some of this
extra fat came from snack items sold in vending machines and student-run
stores. But the study also found that the average cafeteria-cooked lunch had 31
grams of fat, compared with only 21 grams found in lunches students brought
- A May 2004 study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest found
that vending machines in public schools are stocked mostly with high-fat snacks
and sugary drinks and may be undercutting federal efforts to improve the
nutritional quality of school meals. The researchers looked at more than 1,400
school vending machines. They found that 75% of beverages offered in the
machines were high-sugar sodas and imitation fruit juices, and 80% of the
available snack foods were candies, chips, or sweet baked goods.
- A March 2004 study by Baylor College of Medicine researchers found that
when children moved up to middle school from elementary school, they started
consuming less fruit, milk, and vegetables, and more sweetened drinks and
high-fat vegetables (like french fries). The snack bars often found in middle
schools might be part of the reason, the researchers say.