What Schools Can Do To Get Children To Eat Healthy Lunches

Ideas Parents Can Suggest And School Lunchrooms Can Follow

A healthy school lunch on a cafeteria tray.
How food is presented in the lunchroom can make a big differences in children choosing to eat healthy foods. Tooga via Getty Images

Today's school lunch rooms face a variety of challenges. There is growing concern about a childhood obesity epidemic.  There are new federal standards for school lunches. There are increased food costs due to inflation and the desire to meet healthier standards. And of course, there is also getting kids to eat food that is good for them. 

Each school and school district must choose their own path to providing the best lunches possible.

  One of the great things about the US public school system is that local policy is the biggest influence over our schools. While the Healthy and Hunger-Free Kids Act has been a terrific step towards ensuring that US school children have access to healthy, nutritious meals at school, some areas may face different challenges and choose to opt out of the program.

Whether you are a concerned parent who would like to offer some helpful suggestions to improve your child's lunchroom, a member of Local Wellness Policy group for your child's school, or a school lunch professional, the following ideas can be used by schools to encourage children and teens to choose healthy foods that are offered at school.

Serve healthy food that is regionally and culturally appropriate. 

People generally like to eat foods that they are familiar with and already enjoy. Fortunately, unhealthy versions of favorite foods can often be made using different techniques or ingredients to comply with healthy dietary guidelines.


Some school districts have hired chefs, certified nutritionists, or recipe developers to revamp lunchtime favorites. These culinary specialists are knowledgeable about the different ways to make tasty food that complies with specific guidelines.

For example, chicken fried steak is a popular dish from the Southern US that is now loved in other regions of the country as well.

Rather than deep frying beef portions, a whole grain breading may be added and then the meat can be baked. The gravy-like sauce can be made from low-sodium broths and low-fat milk.

Take Advantage of The Right Programs

There are numerous programs available to get local healthy foods into schools. One program is the Farm To School Program. This federally funded program is managed by individual states. The purpose of the program is to encourage locally farmed goods to be served in local schools. Since each state has choice to participate in the program and set its own guidelines, this program works a bit differently depending on your location.

Another federally funded program that can help schools is Smarter Lunchrooms. Smarter Lunchrooms provides a wealth of research-based information on ways school lunchrooms can get students to select, eat and enjoy healthy food choices using methods that are low- or no-cost to the schools. The Smarter Lunchrooms website offers several tips and research information for free. The program also holds professional development opportunities, such as an annual research symposium, for the school lunch professional.

You can ask the head of your child's school lunch room if the school is participating in a program and if the program would be a good fit for the school.

Searching for grants or partnerships with local food producers may also help reduce costs while getting healthy food into the school cafeteria. There are a variety of nutrition-related programs that are managed by different states.

Make Sure The Healthy Meals Are Given A Good Presentation

You know how food is presented in restaurants and grocery food store to encourage you to buy their foods? These strategies are researched in a field known as behavioral economics. There is already a body of behavioral economic research that has found ways to select and eat healthy foods while being provided choices.

By using the best strategies from the research, school lunchrooms can make a big impact. 

The Smarter Lunchrooms website linked earlier in this article provides in-depth information on research-based strategies. A few quick tips to get you started"

  • Schools can give menu items fun sounding names.
  • They can put up posters with appetizing pictures of healthy foods.
  • School lunch lines can also consider the order in which foods are offered or presented. For example, having children select their fruit and vegetable sides before they can select an entree choice will encourage children to take their fruits and vegetables instead of turning them down because the child believes they can fill up solely on the entree they selected first.

If you are a parent advocating for better lunches, be sure to take positive and constructive steps in the conversation to help move things forward. Approach the school staff with any thoughts or concerns from a positive angle, rather than a negative-toned complaint.

Remember Your Influence on Your Child's Lunchtime Habits

Still, one of the most influential steps for your child's food choices isn't one that starts in the school lunch room.  Have A Positive Home Influence  Be sure to take steps to encourage your child to have healthy eating habits, both in home and at school. Never underestimate the power of your influence on your child.  Steps you take at home will encourage your child or teen to make the best choices away from home.

"Our Ideas." Our Ideas | Smarter Lunchrooms Movement. Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Program , n.d. Web. 30 Dec. 2016.

Continue Reading