An education on school lunches

It’s back to school time for many, and even if you’re way past that, I’ll bet September makes you stop and think just a little bit about your school experiences. Unless you were home schooled, one thing all of us have experienced is eating at school.

What did you like to eat for lunch at school? I remember a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and apples. I also remember drinking little cartons of milk and, like most kids, there were certain cafeteria lunches I liked more than others. School lunches have changed a lot since I was in school. They’ve gotten a lot better, featuring more choices and healthier options. Plus, those school lunches are a tremendous bargain, so why not take advantage of them? They’re a great option for all children, but can often be the most nutritious meal of the day for children whose families are struggling with food insecurity.

If you’re a parent, you can have quite a bit of control over what your child eats at school if you pack their lunch. I don’t say total control here because, if you were like most kids, you know kids don’t always eat what they bring or what they get in their cafeteria lunch. There can be a lot of food trading going on and, sadly, far too many kids throw out as much as they eat.

The most important question is, whether your child brings their lunch to school or eats food prepared by the school cafeteria, how do you get them to make better food choices when they’re eating away from home?

It helps if you started showing them how to make good choices from a very young age. Because children learn more from watching you and wanting to be like you than they will ever learn from listening to you, the best thing you can do is to make healthy choices yourself. Make sure they see you eating and enjoying fruits, vegetables, low fat dairy products and whole grains.

The next best thing you can do is to prepare foods with your children. Then eat together. Talk with your children a lot while you’re cooking, eating and cleaning up afterward. Your kids won’t even realize they’re learning, but the lessons you’ll be teaching them about healthy eating, cooking and personal responsibility will last them a lifetime.

It’s also important to let kids serve themselves at meal times so they learn to make smart decisions about which foods to eat and how much to put on their plates. I remember watching my niece fill her plate with nothing but a huge mound of corn and a pile of red jello at a restaurant buffet when she was around 5 years old. She learned a big lesson about portion size that day. She learned that her eyes could be much bigger than her tummy. When she started piling up her plate, her dad told her she could not go back for other foods when she got tired of eating only those two foods. That happened much sooner than either my brother-in-law or my niece expected. It may seem a little harsh, but she learned an important lesson in personal responsibility that day.

Kids need to experience making their own choices. Then they need to deal with the consequences of their actions.

Sometimes they learn more when their choices aren’t the best, but eventually they will learn to be more aware of when they are hungry, how much food they need and how to tell when they are full.

Research actually suggests that, when given the opportunity, infants and very young children already have the ability to self-regulate the amount of food they need to eat. They may eat differing amounts of food at different meals on different days, but they have an innate ability to eat just as much food as they need in pretty well controlled quantities over the course of most days. However, parental feeding practices can change that. Parents who ignore their children’s feeding cues can teach a child to keep eating even when they aren’t hungry. Those cues can be as simple as when a 1 year old starts shaking their head “No!” begins pushing food away or throwing it. Parents need to understand the child has had enough and stop trying to force them to eat the amount of food the parent thinks they need to eat.

Some parents also serve much larger portions than necessary for their child’s age and then they pressure or try to bribe their children to eat more. These parents may be well meaning, worried that their children aren’t eating enough to support their growth, but we all need to remember that children don’t have adult sized stomachs. They simply don’t need to eat as much food as adults need to eat. Plus, some research has shown that by serving large portions we can cause children to eat much more than they need.

Let’s face it, one of the causes of our nation’s obesity epidemic likely stems from our failure to heed our own and our children’s hunger cues.

The way you feed your children can also influence the development of their food preferences. Some research has shown that the use of pressure or rewards can actually make it less likely a child will want to eat a food. For instance, if you promise dessert or TV time if a child eats their spinach, they will be less likely to eat spinach the next time when there isn’t anybody there to give them that dessert or TV time.

One way to get kids to eat more of what’s good for them is to get them to try new things. That sounds easier than it often proves to be when feeding children. Adults need to realize that kids don’t always like new foods right away.

There are a lot of reasons for that, but what adults need to do is make sure they offer new foods many times, served a variety of ways.

Each time, ask the child to take just a taste and be patient with them. Kids learn to like new foods by having them offered over and over and by starting with very small amounts. One bite can be enough. The next time they might take two bites and, if you don’t pressure them to eat more of it, before long they may surprise you and start requesting the food.

It can also help if you serve new foods with familiar foods or if you offer a couple new foods at the same time, letting kids choose which of the new foods they want to try. Sometimes it can make a huge difference if they just get to taste the new food prepared in different ways.

Think about yourself. You may hate raw onions on your sandwich but love grilled onions. Kids are also much more likely to try something new if they see their friends, older kids, and grownups enjoying those new foods.

The very worst thing you can do is try to force kids to eat something.

I remember crying for an hour over a pile of cold squash one Thanksgiving when I was very young. My father wouldn’t let me up from the table until I ate the squash. I finally did, gagging the whole time, but then I vomited. It took a good 40 years before I could even smell squash again without becoming queasy. Is that what you want for your kids? Force feeding can easily end up making your child hate the very same nutritious foods you want them to enjoy and eat more of.

Instead, help your child learn to love a variety of foods, to think of food for what it really is meant to be – fuel for our bodies – and when they get to school you’ll find they will be far more likely to make healthy choices on their own.

If you’re struggling to make ends meet, you may be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program. SNAP helps low-income people buy nutritious food and beverages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture knows that a healthy diet will likely reduce health care costs, so it’s putting healthy food within everyone’s reach. To find out more about SNAP benefit eligibility call 1-800-342-3009, apply online for SNAP benefits at, or contact your local social services office.

And if you’re looking for even more ideas to improve your family’s health, check out Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program. You’ll find fun new ways to incorporate more fruits and vegetables into your day, reduce your intake of sugar-sweetened beverages, get at least the recommended 30 minutes of physical activity each and every day, all while also saving money. Events are held at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County. Bilingual education is available.

For more information call 716-664-9502 ext. 217.

If you’re looking for new ideas for your children’s or your own lunches, why not try the recipes you can find at the MyPlate Kid’s Place website or try our Mexican Pinwheels or Fast Mix recipes. You can also find more great new ideas and healthy kid-friendly recipes at or by using the recipe finder tool on the USDA website.

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month in the OBSERVER. Comments may be directed to