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New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Feeding the Family: Healthy School Lunches Important at Every Age

LAS CRUCES -- Bologna and cheese, cold pizza or pasta salad? Planning a nutritious school lunch for your child every day can be an intimidating task.

To make the job easier, parents can follow the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Guide Pyramid and involve their children in the planning, said Martha Archuleta, a food and nutrition specialist with New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service.

"One of the most effective ways to incorporate healthy eating is to let your children get involved in deciding what they should eat for lunch," Archuleta said.

First, review the school's lunch menu ahead of time and let the children decide which days they prefer to bring a lunch from home.

Follow the Food Guide Pyramid's recommendations to prepare lunches for children of any age. "For each food group, there is a range of recommended servings," Archuleta said. "Young children may need only the minimum requirements, while active high school students may need the maximum servings daily."

Some examples of healthy lunches could include pizza made with vegetables and lean meats; burritos made with low-fat refried beans and chiles; and sandwiches made with whole grain breads, low-fat cheese and lean meats such as roast beef, chicken or turkey.

"Sandwiches also are a good place to incorporate vegetables like grated carrots, green chiles or chopped bell peppers and cucumbers," Archuleta said.

Lunches served in the school cafeteria also are becoming more healthy. "There's a national effort to incorporate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans into school lunch menus," Archuleta said. "The goal is to serve meals that provide lots of grains, fruits and vegetables, and that have 30 percent or less calories coming from fat."

Archuleta offered parents tips for selecting healthy lunches for their children.

* Involve children in planning their lunches by letting them go to the grocery store to pick foods they like.
* Don't restrict fat intake in younger children. Energy intake should be in step with energy use for active children.
* Make sure children can open canned fruit or pudding containers on their own.

Middle school

* Encourage healthy food choices in the school lunchroom and explain the importance of not using sodas and candy as "empty calories" for energy.
* Let children participate in planning their lunch menu for the week and preparing lunches at home.
* Begin watching for signs of dieting in girls. As adolescent girls become more aware of their appearance, they may begin to diet by restricting meat and milk products. However, iron and calcium provided by meat and milk are very important at this stage, and lower-fat versions of these products are available.

High school

* Discuss the benefits of an overall healthy diet and encourage healthy food choices.
* Pack an additional snack in lunches for students involved in after-school activities to eat later in the day.
* Look for signs of eating disorders, especially in females. Teenage girls concerned with their appearance may fall into a pattern of anorexia, which is severe food restriction, or bulimia, which is eating large amounts of food then vomiting to keep weight off. Both disorders are very destructive and parents should seek counseling if they notice these behaviors.

Whatever the age group, Archuleta said parents should follow the Food Guide Pyramid to plan healthy lunches and encourage lots of family exercise such as bicycling, gardening, walking or in-line skating.

For a copy of the Food Guide Pyramid, contact your county Extension home economist.