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Kids: Surviving the School Lunch Line


Meals eaten at school play a major role in childhood health—and they also help form eating habits that last into adulthood. Low–fat vegetarian lunches rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can help young people maintain healthy body weights and reduce the risk of chronic disease later in life.


How can parents help make sure their children have access to healthy food choices at school? Here are a few suggestions:


  • Talk to your child’s teacher. Find out if the teacher has any classroom rules regarding food. For example, some teachers may not allow candy or other sweets to be eaten in the classroom—a sign of helpful nutritional interest and concern. Discuss the reasons that your child eats a healthy diet and provide the teacher with nutrition information.
  • Discuss food issues with the school food service department. Ask if the school would consider offering a salad bar or a vegetarian entrée.
  • Donating books or cookbooks to the school library is helpful.
  • Link up with like–minded parents for mutual support. Many parents will share your concerns. After all, it would truly be a challenge to find a classroom in which every student eats the same foods. Lactose intolerance, food allergies, ethnic preferences, and religious or dietary restrictions all influence food choices.
  • Encourage your child to request that low–fat, vegetarian entrées be placed on the lunch line. Demand for these items will encourage the food service to incorporate healthier foods into their menu cycle.
  • Parents can volunteer their time. You may want to get involved with the PTA or directly with the school’s food service staff. Work with them to help them incorporate healthier foods. Some parents have even donated recipes or planned healthy snack breaks in the classroom.
  • Supplement with side dishes from home. If you are concerned about what is being served in the lunchroom, you can use a couple of the following suggestions to complete your child’s meal: individual boxes of soy or rice milk, soy yogurt, chopped vegetables and dip, whole grain breads or crackers, homemade muffins, rice cakes, pretzels, or fresh fruit. Although the U.S. Department of Agriculture still mandates that cow’s milk be served with school lunches, many schools will allow juice to be substituted if you present a physician’s note.


Packing a lunch is also an option. For parents concerned that their child’s meal will be “different,” try meat analogs, soy cheese, or soy yogurt. Leftovers are another quick and easy lunchtime alternative. The variety of vegetables, legumes, grains, and fruits available can make for interesting school lunch fare.


Here are some other ideas for lunches:


  • Easy choices: Bean and pasta salads, grilled tofu, and burritos make great lunches and are easy to pack. Last night’s leftovers are also a great, simple choice. Make sure to include several healthy snacks.
  • Sandwiches: Try hummus or another bean spread with sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, and shredded carrots in pita bread. Many whole foods stores and some grocery stores sell vegan deli slices that look and taste like bologna, Canadian bacon, roast beef, and turkey. Serve on whole–grain bread with soy cheese, mustard, lettuce, and tomato. Peanut butter is an old standby. For variety, try other nut butters, such as cashew, almond, or hazelnut, with sliced banana or peaches on whole–wheat bread. Cutting sandwiches into novel shapes is fun for kids.
  • Hot meals: Fill a wide–mouth thermos with just–made or leftover pasta and tomato sauce, veggie chili, or stew. Or make your own vegetarian version of “franks & beans” using vegetarian hot dogs and vegetarian baked beans.
  • Soups: Warm your child with homemade vegetable or bean soups. If you are short on time, try a low–sodium instant soup. Just stir hot water into the soup mix and pour into a thermos. Round off the meal with some crackers, crunchy baby carrots, and soy or rice milk.