School Lunches – What Are the Best Choices for Your Kids?

It’s back to school time again. After a summer at home, or packing lunches for day camp, now you have to think about what you are going to do for your child’s lunch choices at school – buy from the cafeteria or send a lunch from home.

Dr. Mike Bishop, Ph.D, M.B.A., is a clinical psychologist and Executive Director of Wellspring, a weight-loss program for kids that offers summer camps and the nation’s only year-round boarding school focusing on weight loss.  He offers the following suggestions both for the cafeteria and for if you choose to pack lunches.

School Lunch Program:

Step one, says Dr. Bishop, is to sit down with the monthly menu and see what the choices are for school lunch each day. For the younger grades, most likely, they only have one choice each day. For high schoolers, there may be many choices.

According to Dr. Bishop, it’s important to discuss not just what your kids like from the menu, but also if it’s healthy – low sugar, low-fat, high fiber. It’s not just parents saying yes or no to the menu item, but also educating your child to understand if a choice is a good one or not for their own bodies. This helps teach them how to make smart choices when you aren’t around.

Teach them to read labels to see the calories and fat content of the menu items. Many schools offer the nutritional information of the menu but if your school district does not do that, Dr. Bishop advocates parents getting involved by asking for this information to be posted on the district’s website.

Dr. Bishop says a good resource for understanding the right nutritional mix is to look at the current food pyramid and discuss with your kids. Today, kid’s choices in food are heavily influenced by what Dr. Bishop terms “marketing forces” such as cereal advertisers, sugary snacks and especially soda manufacturers, which Dr. Bishop especially dislikes.   

To put it in better perspective, according to Dr. Bishop, a serving size of soda back in the “old days” was 6.5 ounces. Today, a serving size is 20 ounces!  Our nation’s soda consumption has increased 500% since then. And our rate of childhood diabetes has gone up 10-fold. Not only that, but 30 years ago, the rate of children overweight or obese was just 1 kid out of every 10. Today, it’s 2 out of 3.

Dr. Bishop notes that diet soda has gotten a bad rap from the media however, in no reputable study has the artificial sweeteners it contains been proven harmful. He says an artificially sweetened diet soda, which has not been proven harmful, is a much better choice than a sugary “fully-loaded” soda, which science definitely supports as a cause of weight gain.

So, if the cafeteria is your choice, make sure you help your child understand his choices and help him make the best ones for his dietary needs and weight.

Packing A Lunch:

If you choose to pack your children’s lunch, you maintain control of the ingredients and calories. Dr. Bishop recommends lots of fruits and vegetables, natural grains, yogurt (like Gogerts) and low-fat or no-fat alternatives such as mayonnaise on sandwiches.  Celery sticks and carrots with fat-free ranch dressing as well as cut-up fruit like watermelon, cantaloupe and apples are good choices. These are great snack choices as well because kids can eat as much as they want and still keep calories and fat low.

In terms of drink selections, Dr. Bishop recommends choosing milk or water, especially if your child has any sort of weight issues. For older children, choose fat-free milk; for younger kids, 2% milk is ok for brain development.

Dr. Bishop strongly recommends not sending fruit juice. Juice contains a lot of calories. Instead, send an orange which contains fiber to help fill up your child’s tummy and has far less calories. In his own 100+ pound weight loss experience, he cut out all juice which greatly decreased his caloric intake and aided in his weight loss.

For sandwiches, Dr. Bishop recommends lean cuts of meat such as turkey. He notes bologna and salami are both high in fat. Use fat-free or low-fat mayonnaise or mustard, which has negligible fat. For peanut butter and jelly, he suggest sugar-free jam or jelly as well as defatted peanut butter such as PB2 or Better n’ Peanut Butter. He notes regular peanut butter has over 16 grams of fat per serving while the defatted peanut butter has about an eighth of that.  (I tried Better n’ Peanut Butter after speaking with Dr. Bishop and it was actually quite good. It does taste slightly different than regular peanut butter but I bet your kids will never notice the difference on their sandwich).

Dr. Bishop notes there is no such thing as “good fat” and “bad fat” – fat is fat and is best avoided. He especially dislikes nuts as a snack item because they are so fat dense. Fruit and vegetables are much better choices for snacks.

Pretzels and baked chips are good choices for the lunch box.  Dr. Bishop also like mini pizzas made with fat-free pita bread, fat-free cheese, and mushrooms and other vegetables.

For a sweet treat dessert, Dr. Bishop recommends No Pudge brownies you can bake at home. They are actually good and the kids won’t know they’re low-fat, he says. He also likes making sweet chips from fat-free pita bread sprinkled with cinnamon, baked and cut to pieces. Fat-free fig newtons are also ok, although they are high in calories.

Dr. Bishop says the point of making lunches or any meal is to find “lovable foods that love you back” as they say at Wellspring.

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