Back-to-School Lunch Ideas for Healthy Kids

It's back-to-school time. Growing up, I loved the beginning of a new school year: new books, new lockers, new shoes, new classes, and especially the hot lunch line.

Does Childhood Obesity = School Lunches?

The National School Lunch Program feeds 31.6 million children each day with meals supplied through the school cafeteria. Healthy eating habits begin in childhood, but in many states kids are getting their lunches from the snack line, kiosks, or vending machines. Eating well is vital for a good education.

The American Heart Journal conducted a study on children in Michigan and found that students were 29 percent more likely to be obese if they ate school lunches. "Of the 142 obese children in the study for whom dietary information was known, almost half were school-lunch regulars, compared with only one-third of the 787 who were not obese."

Most school lunches rely heavily on high calorie, low nutrient foods because they cost less. The USDA estimates that many school children get as much as 50 percent of their calories during school hours. Advocates for better school lunches lobbied hard last year for a Bill that would provide funds for school lunch programs and require strict nutrition standards on all foods sold in schools. Michelle Obama was the leader who pushed for the Bill's passage. Chef Jamie Oliver has also been fighting hard for healthy school lunches with his ideas in The Food Revolution.

Articles show that approximately four in every five children will try new foods at school that they may never touch at home. If the USA's school lunch programs would supply healthy plant-based foods, odds are that our children would weigh less.

Starting at Home

There is some compelling research that says parents are the role model to their children's eating habits. Kids learn what and how to eat when they watch family. Frequent, home cooked family meals at the dinner table, with television off and parents and children engaged in conversation are keys to developing a healthy lifestyle. Parents who are serving "kid food" (chicken nuggets, hot dogs, plain spaghetti with butter) may be raising children who will become resistant to trying new foods and accustomed to high-sugar, high-fat alternatives.

Allergies

According to a Northwestern University study published in the July 2011 issue of Pediatrics, one in every 13 children are living with and attending school with food allergies. Occasionally these severe allergies may cause an anaphylactic reaction.

Anaphylaxis is a severe, potentially fatal, systemic allergic reaction that occurs suddenly after contact with an allergic substance. Any food may elicit a reaction, but some of the most common reactions in children are attributed to peanuts, tree nuts (walnut, cashew), milk, fish, shellfish, egg, soy, and wheat. Sesame and other seeds have been reported as potent allergens as well.

The increase in food allergies has forced schools to send letters home declaring peanut-free classrooms and school buildings. Some states have passed laws which require health departments to come up with guidelines on how schools should manage allergic students.

Families should notify their child's school and provide a written "emergency food allergy action plan." The written treatment plan should include the child's name, identifying information such as a picture, specifics about the food allergies, symptoms and treatments, instructions to activate emergency services, and emergency contact information. The parent should provide the school with epinephrine devices to be used if necessary.

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