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    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 at school.

    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 from home.
    • 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.

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