Healthy lunch tips for back to school

Jul 18, 2011 at 3:29 a.m. ET

Buh-bye, chocolate milk. So long, strawberry milk. Beginning this month in the Los Angeles Unified School District, these flavored milks will no longer be offered at lunchtime. Kids will now choose from low fat and skim plain milk and non-dairy options.

Kids drinking milk

Flavored milk ban

The ban comes after a push from celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, who called out sugary milks on his reality TV show "Food Revolution."

The extra sugar in flavored milk makes it an unnecessary evil, fans of the milk-ban say, considering that one out of three kids in the U.S. is overweight or obese.

Others see flavored milk as the scapegoat. It's a step in the right direction, but there are other culprits in the cafeteria.

"You shouldn't look at one food. You should look at the whole diet," says Becky Domokos-Bays, school nutrition director for Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia.

At the 17 schools Domokos-Bays oversees, skim chocolate milk is offered in addition to skim and low-fat white milk, and she says all of those options provide kids with protein, calcium and vitamin D. Yanking flavored milk from the cafeteria doesn't guarantee that kids will drink the alternative, meaning they might miss out on nutrients entirely.

People think that if they leave only while milk out there, kids will take it

More red flags

And what other unhealthy foods are lurking in school cafeteria?

High-calorie fruit juices are just as concerning as flavored milk, says Mitzi Dulan, a registered dietician, nutrition expert and nutrition-book author. They're sugary, too, and don't even have the protein, calcium and vitamin D found in milk, flavored or unflavored.

Oliver's campaign has spurred a national conversation on the pitfalls of school lunches, Dulan says. But milk isn't the main culprit in her eyes. She's more concerned with choices in the cafeteria line that provide minimal nutrition, such as highly processed foods.

Muffins, corn dogs and hot dogs are among foods that should get the boot, Dulan says.

Questions to ask your child's school

Curious about what your kids are eating at school?

"When you come and eat with your child (at school), go through the line and see what your kids eat every day," Domokos-Bays says.

If you're interested in speaking with the schools food service director or cafeteria manager, School Nutrition Association suggests asking questions like these:

  • How do you develop the menus?
  • How do you apply nutrition guidelines in planning meals?
  • How do you try to make healthy foods appealing to students?
  • How do you determine the price of a school meal?
  • What healthy menu changes are you working toward?
  • Have you introduced any healthy new menu items in the last year? Which ones have succeeded and which ones have failed?
  • How can we support your efforts to get students to try the healthier food choices you offer?
  • Do you allow or need volunteers in the cafeteria?

How to pack a healthy lunch

Lunches brought from home need the same critical eye.bagged lunch

Dulan, whose daughters are 7 and 10 years old, says to bring your children to the grocery store and help them decide what they'd like to see in their brown bag. Start in the produce section and ask open ended questions.

"Say, 'What healthy snacks would you like to pack in your school lunch?' Using that verbiage with your kids puts them in control," Dulan says.

Here are Dulan's tips for packing a healthy school lunch:

  • Pack squeezable applesauce instead of gummy fruit snacks
  • Cut calories in sandwiches by using sandwich thins or bagel thins rather than
    buns or sliced bread.
  • For peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, use all-natural peanut butter and try
    squeezing on some honey instead of jelly.
  • Introduce kids to Greek yogurt, which has more protein and fewer calories
    than regular yogurt.
  • Nuts and dried fruit are a healthy alternative to snack mixes and chips.

Tell us

Do you agree that cutting out milk is a step in the right direction? Sound off in the comment section.

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