It is that time of the year again—back-to-school season. As you prepare your child to head back to school you may be asking yourself “did we purchase everything on the school supply list?” and “will they like their teacher?” or maybe “should we sign them up for football or soccer?” While you ponder those questions, another important one to ask yourself is “will my child be participating in the meal program at school?” The answer to this question could impact their health, your wallet and your time.
In order for a meal to be served at your child’s school, it has to meet strict nutrition standards. This means more fruits and vegetables, less sugar, fat and sodium and plenty of whole grains and lean proteins on your child’s lunch tray. Additionally, studies have shown that lunches from home tend to be higher in calories, saturated fat and sugar while also being lower in protein and fiber.
Your child may be eligible to receive free or reduced meals if your family meets a certain income eligibility cut-off. Make sure to fill out the income eligibility paperwork for your school to see if your child can receive free or reduced meals.
Also, you may not be saving as much money as you think by packing lunches. Studies have shown that packed lunches ring in at a higher cost than school lunches. A typical, well-balanced packed lunch may consist of a turkey sandwich on whole grain bread, a bag of trail mix, a cheese stick, some vegetables and a piece of fruit, which rings at a price around $3.18 per lunch. On the other hand, purchasing school lunch at full price ranges from an average of $2.18 in elementary schools to $2.42 in high schools.
If you prepare your child’s lunch every school day for the year, how many minutes do you think this accumulates to? If you spend 10 minutes preparing lunch for each school day, this accumulates to 30 hours of time spent throughout the 180-day school year.
School Meals Tips
Here are some tips for encouraging your child to make healthy school breakfast and lunch choices.
- Discuss the school meal your child will be having that day in a positive way, so they will be more open to trying new meals even if they are unfamiliar.
- If possible, have lunch at your child’s school to demonstrate positive eating behaviors with your child. Make sure to try the fruits and vegetables and other meal components!
- Discuss the fruit and vegetable options for the day and ask your child which option they will choose. This will help them feel more confident when entering the lunch line.
- Pick a daily meal component and discuss the nutritional value of that food. This promotes a positive relationship with food and health. If you are unsure of the nutritional value of a meal component, look it up and learn together!
Packed Lunch tips
Despite the improvements to school meals, you may love preparing lunch for your kid every day and will continue to do so. Here are some tips to ensure your child is getting the nutrients they need in their packed lunch.
- Try to build a lunch that mirrors USDA’s MyPlate, similar to that of school lunches. This includes whole grains, fruits and vegetables, dairy and lean protein.
- Stay away from prepackaged snacks as these tend to be higher in sodium, saturated fats and sugars. These also tend to be the more expensive items in a packed lunch.
- Stay away from added-sugar juices and sodas as these pack on the sugar and can cause your child to feel tired later in the school day.
- Involve your kid in the lunch making process. This will create a sense of responsibility in the food process which has shown to increase consumption of the food prepared, especially fruits and veggies!
- Check out the Alliance Product Calculator from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. This allows you to see if a possible packed lunch item is a healthy choice for your child.
So what does it come down to?
If you can pack a lunch that is providing your child with the nutrients they need for a budget that fits your family, go for it! But if you are unsure or would like to save yourself some time and money, trust your school meals program to serve a healthy and affordable meal to your child.
Alysa Grude, the National PTA School Meals Fellow. Alysa holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Food Science and Dietetics and is currently pursuing her Master’s of Public Health in Public Nutrition.