All this is despite the fact that poor eating habits in children not only contribute to childhood obesity but also may increase the risk that they will develop certain chronic diseases as adults, experts say. The prevalence of childhood obesity in the U.S. has doubled since the 1970s.
What's a Parent to Do?
Much as you might like to, you can't follow your children around school all day to make sure they're choosing healthy foods. So what's a parent to do?
McAllister, of course, thinks bringing lunch from home is the best alternative. Not only does this let you decide what they have for lunch, but it also helps keep them away from the vending machines.
"There's no guarantee what the kids will use their lunch money for once they get to school," she says. "You have no control over where that money goes once they leave home."
It's important for kids to have choices, though, she says. So before you pack their lunches or hit the grocery story, ask them what they want: What kind of fruit would they prefer? Which vegetable? What kind of dip? (Kids love to dip, she says; chop broccoli into bite-size pieces and add a container of fat-free dip, and your kids might actually eat their veggies.)
This doesn't mean junk food is an option. "Let the kids have tons of choices, but make sure they're good choices," McAllister says. "A choice between a Ho-Ho and a Ding-Dong is not a choice."
Try to include the five food groups in every lunch, McAllister says: protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and calcium-rich foods. "Kids don't have a lot of time to eat," she says. "You need to get the most nutrition into them in the least amount of time as possible."
And skip the cookies or other sweets. "Dessert is a treat, not a staple," McAllister says.
If bringing lunch to school isn't considered "cool" among your children's friends, make sure your children get to select their own lunch bags -- whether it's a trendy lunch box with their favorite celebrity or action figure, or an attractive insulated bag that looks more like a fashion accessory than a lunch carrier.