Getting back in gear with school lunches

By Jenni Wolf

School is back in session and with that brings the return of daily school lunches.

Whether your kiddos hit the hot lunch line or “brown bag it” from home, here is what you need to know to ensure they are getting a tasty and balanced midday meal.

St. Paul Public School Lunch program

Like all public schools, St. Paul Public Schools are required to base lunch menus and portions on standards set by the USDA which are part of the national school lunch program.

These standards are in place thanks to the “Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act” of 2010 and continue to be revised frequently to ensure school lunches are staying up-to-date with the latest nutritional guidelines and recommendations for this young population.

A perk of using the national school lunch program is that much of the “hard work” of figuring out how to build a balanced plate for your child is done for you.

For example, every school lunch menu must include a daily fruit or vegetable, offer a wide variety of fruit and vegetable types across the week, make sure that 80% of the grains served are whole grains and meet minimum/maximum ranges for other nutrients like fat, protein, carbohydrates and calories.

These guidelines are in place to make sure your children are getting enough fuel for their brains and bodies to learn and grow. The national school lunch program also helps support those children who may not have access to a wide variety of nutritious foods outside of school, making the lunchtime meal an important opportunity to fill in some of those gaps.

As parents, you don’t have to pack the lunch, so encourage your child to try new things from the line. Ask them about meals on a daily basis to engage them in sharing their likes and dislikes. This supports them in recognizing preferences and how different foods make them feel both physically, mentally and emotionally.

If they don’t like a specific hot lunch offering and don’t eat very much of it, perhaps they will learn this leads them to crash and burn at the end of the school day without enough energy and they may be willing to eat more next time.

Brown bag lunches from home

I don’t yet have kids, but I sure can remember the brown bag days of my childhood. I was responsible for packing my own lunch, and so that in fact, is my first tip!

Involve your child in grocery shopping for lunch supplies and also in the packing process. This allows them to have some autonomy and can often lead them to actually eating their lunch instead of just picking at it.

As a parent, give your child or children food options and choices when shopping or packing lunches. Of course, your time and budget will set parameters for your school lunch choices too.

Focus on packing the food groups—include at least one source of grains (carbohydrates), protein, fat, and fiber (fruit/vegetable), and also something “fun.”

I’ve written about “fun foods” in the past. These are foods that help honor needs outside of just “fuel,” like the need to have fun, obviously, but also pleasure, taste enjoyment, a nostalgic memory, etc.

Also consider choosing the best time to pack. Think about what will fit into your family’s and child’s routine. For example, I like to pack when I am already doing some sort of food prep and am already occupied in the kitchen, like during clean-up after dinner or morning breakfast time.

Being realistic about lunches packed from home is important too. In the age of beautifully composed bento boxes and cute cut-out sandwiches gracing social media feeds, it is a helpful reminder that many parents do not have time for that.

If your kids get excited about those touches, then those are great things to do to support them in eating a balanced, healthy meal. If your kids are pleased with a ham and cheese sandwich, trail mix, bag of grapes and a fruit-roll-up, then helping them pack those things are what will support them in being nourished.

Happy lunching! 

Sources: St. Paul Public Schools, Nutrition Services ( and USDA Food and Nutrition Service (

Jenni Wolf, a registered dietitian, writes about food and nutrition for the Bugle.

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