Guiding Your Child's Food Choices at School
If your child is beginning kindergarten (or even first grade), no doubt he's in turn nervous, excited, anxious, and overwhelmed. After all, starting school is a big-deal -- and it's full of lots of firsts. One first that may have your child particularly jittery is his first time navigating the lunch line. These tips can help put him at ease.
To Pack or Not to Pack?
For many parents, the biggest question when it comes to mealtime at school is whether or not they should pack their child a lunch or have him go through the cafeteria line. According to most experts, it really comes down to your child's personality.
"If your child tends to be anxious in new situations, packing a lunch bag of familiar foods can help -- it gives your child one less thing to worry about," says Jennifer Shu, M.D., author of Food Fights: Winning the Nutritional Challenges of Parenthood Armed with Insight, Humor, and a Bottle of Ketchup. "However, if your child is the adventurous type, he may love the newness and excitement of going through the lunch line."
Whichever option you choose, consider taking your child for a tour of the school before classes begin and walking him through the cafeteria. That way he won't be thrown by how large and disorienting it can be.
Tips for Success
- If you know your child will regularly be buying his lunch, remember that he'll need a secure way to carry his money or meal card. Rosemarie Clark, M.Ed., Donna Hawkins, M.Ed., and Beth Vachon, M.Ed., authors of The School-Savvy Parent, suggest finding out if your school will hold onto children's purchased meal tickets for them or assign account codes.
- Talk with your child ahead of time about healthy lunch options, since many schools now offer one or two choices at each meal and some even allow kindergartners to make purchases from a snack bar. Encourage him to steer clear of fried foods or anything loaded with cheese and ask that he always have skim milk and at least one piece of fruit.
- Once classes begin, regularly ask him what he ate -- praising him when he's made a balanced choice and letting him know you aren't pleased when he only eats the fries on his plate and tosses the chicken fingers and carrot sticks in the trash.
- Be realistic about his choices. He's not going to be able to resist temptation 100% (who does?), but if your child seems to be routinely eating poorly, you may want to start packing his lunch. This way you'll have more control over his food options.
- Don't expect the teachers or lunch ladies to guide your child's food choices. "Remember, teachers are often too busy to monitor each child's selections," says Dr. Shu. "But if your child seems to be splurging on unhealthy or snack-type options, talk to the teacher." She may be able to help guide your child's food choices in the short-term or at least report back to you on what he typically eats.