Making Healthy School Food Choices – A Parent’s Influence

lunch line The Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act (HHFKA) has stirred up all sorts of controversy, misconceptions and contradictory information.

While the public has every right to expect the very best nutrition for their children when they eat school lunch, offering nutritious foods does not necessarily mean that those foods are going to be consumed.  Moreover, there is a public concern about the amount of food that is being fed to the trash can.

How can parents help?  First and foremost, parents need to understand the basic components of the HHFKA as it relates to nutrition.   School meals have always had high standards, now the bar has been raised even higher.  Meals can contain only “whole grain-rich” grains, and students must select either a fruit OR a vegetable.  Only low fat or non-fat milk options are offered.   The current restriction on sodium will become increasingly tighter over the next decade.

Sound like every parents dream lunch – right?  As a school nutrition professional, I have seen the “snacks” that some parents have sent to school with their children to supplement their healthy school lunch – everything from snack cakes, candy, sugary drinks and large bags of snack chips.  Schools can’t teach good nutrition if children are receiving a different message at home.

As parents you can help support our efforts by:

  • Reviewing the school menu with your child daily and determining what he/she thinks he/she might like to have or may like to try.
  • Increasing your own basic nutrition knowledge by checking out, the website from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics or and searching materials under Team Nutrition.  Both these sites offer advice on healthy meal planning, too.
  • Practicing at home what you ask for us to do at school.  Serve meals that contain seasonally available fruits and vegetables. Incorporate whole grains into your meal planning. Take soda off of the table!  Children need milk and dairy now to develop strong bones to last a lifetime. Schools have a hard time getting children to eat an apple or try broccoli if the same choices are not being offered at home.
  • Talking to your child!  Ask them what they had for lunch and how they liked it.  Encourage them to try new items.
  • Teaching your child that food has value and is a resource that should not be wasted.  Nothing is more discouraging than to watch a child throw away a whole apple or an unpeeled banana or an unopened carton of milk.  Children can select what they want as long as they meet the minimum requirements. They can ask for a smaller portion of the vegetable or fruit.
  • If possible, join your child for lunch – and don’t bring Fast Food!  Most school lunch programs will allow adults to purchase meals at a nominal cost.  Lead by example and try everything on your plate.
  • Not sending your child to school with junk food.  This can’t be said often enough. 
  • Being positive about school lunches and healthier foods in general.  Take your child to the grocery store or local farmers market.  Get them involved in the kitchen.  If possible, visit the local U-Pick farms in your community.  The fruits and vegetables are cheaper and if a child picks it, they are more apt to eat it!  Plus, you will get the added benefit of exercise.
  • Trying to keep meals at home as minimally processed as possible.  Eat Fresh!
  • Modeling the behavior you want your child to mimic. 

According to the Center for Disease Control, 69%of American adults over 20 are either overweight or obese.  Over a third of our children are either overweight or obese.  Obesity contributes to a host of medical issues including Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and certain types of cancers.  A child who is overweight has a higher tendency to be overweight or obese as an adult.  The time to act is now – be informed, be proactive, take an interest in your health and your child’s health by practicing good nutrition and physically active behaviors!


Annette Marchbanks, Syracuse City School District