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This article originally appeared in the Sept. 22, 2010, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Buying lunch at school may be the first time kids get to call the shots on which foods they will eat. School lunches have improved over the years in both taste and nutrition, with many schools serving healthier dishes such as grilled chicken sandwiches and salads.

But some school meals still exceed recommendations for fat. In the typical school cafeteria, kids can still choose an unhealthy mix of foods.  For instance, a child might decide to buy a hot dog, day after day.

Use school lunches as a chance to steer your child toward good choices. Especially with younger children, explain how a nutritious lunch will give them energy to finish the rest of the school day and enjoy after-school activities.

Here are some other tips:

  • Look over the cafeteria menu together. Ask what a typical lunch includes and which meals your kids particularly like. Recommend items that are healthier, but be willing to allow them to buy favorite lunch items occasionally, even if that includes a hot dog.
  • Ask about foods like chips, soda, and ice cream. Find out if and when these foods are available at school.
  • Encourage children to take a packed lunch, at least occasionally. This can put you back in the driver's seat and help ensure that kids get a nutritious midday meal.

Encourage your children to choose cafeteria meals that include fruits, vegetables, lean meats, and whole grains, such as whole wheat instead of white bread. Also, they should avoid fried foods when possible and choose low-fat milk or water as a drink.

If you're helping pack a lunch, start by brainstorming foods and snacks that your children would like to eat. In addition to old standbys, such as peanut butter and jelly, try pitas or wrap sandwiches stuffed with grilled chicken or veggies. Try soups and salads, and don't forget last night's leftovers as easy lunchbox fillers.

“Parents sometimes feel they have to provide the perfect lunch. You can pack all the best foods, but whether the child will eat it is a different story,” says Rita Chrivia, a clinical dietitian at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center.  “Most kids have a favorite meal or two, and it’s OK to repeat those favorites pretty often as long as you’re including at least two of the four basic food groups.”

Be sure to check with the school to make sure that there aren't any restrictions on what kids can pack in their lunches. And don't forget to involve your kids in the process so that healthier lunches can become a goal they strive for, too.

A packed lunch carries the added responsibility of keeping the food safe to eat. That means keeping hot foods hot and cold foods cold. One study found that less than a third of parents included a cold pack when packing yogurt, deli-meat sandwiches, and other foods that need refrigeration.

Here are some suggestions to keep lunch foods safe:

  • Wash your hands before handling food items.
  • Use a thermos for hot foods.
  • Use cold packs or freeze some foods and drinks overnight. They'll thaw in the lunchbox.
  • Wash out lunchboxes every day or use brown paper bags that can be discarded or recycled.
  • Toss in some moist towelettes to remind children to wash their hands before eating and to clean up afterwards.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at www.cardinalglennon.com.

9/22/2010