Making Smart Cafeteria Choices

When your child buys lunch at school, find out how to help him avoid snacks and treats.

Cafeteria Food Paula Hible

If your child buys lunch at school, look beyond the menu. Nearly half of elementary-school students have access to sweet, salty, and high-fat snacks, according to a report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Some kids buy a couple of snacks and eat them in addition to lunch or instead of it," says Jill Castle, R.D., coauthor of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School. Guide your child to smart picks.

See what's offered. The snacks sold vary from school to school. If they're not stated on the website or on the lunch menu, ask the school for the scoop. Then talk to your child. Say, "While you're buying your lunch, you'll see that the school also sells treats. It would be wonderful to have cookies every day but that won't make you strong, plus they cost extra money. Let's come up with a plan."

Discuss the options. Yes, it's tempting to simply nix buying any snacks. But it might be better to give your child a little flexibility; by practicing now, she'll make better choices when she's older. "You might tell your child that she can buy a snack once a week. Just be sure to consider any classroom treats she may receive as well," says Castle. "That way, she has an opportunity to plan and make a few decisions for herself."

Volunteer in the lunchroom. It's the only way you'll get a bird's-eye view of the lunch she's eating -- and what's going to waste. You can spot problems -- like eating the snack before the food or talking so much that she runs out of time to eat the healthy stuff.

    Lunch Monitor: What Are Kids Throwing Away?

      Originally published in the September 2014 issue of Parents magazine.