WFU professor offers parents tips to get kids to eat healthy school lunches

By Maggie Barrett
June 24, 2005

With the growing problem of childhood obesity, getting children to eat healthy foods at school has become an issue often discussed and highlighted in the media. Gary Miller, Wake Forest University associate professor of health and exercise science, says there are two simple ways parents can get their children to eat healthier lunches at school: send a healthy packed lunch and talk to children about making healthy food choices.

Miller, who has a 5-year-old son, says sending a packed lunch rather than money for a cafeteria lunch or vending machine items gives parents more control over the food choices their children have at school.

Like other parents, Miller knows that just because you pack it, that does not mean children will eat it.

"It's hard to tell what kids consume at school because you don't know what they're going to do," says Miller, who specializes in the effects of exercise and dietary intervention on weight loss and weight maintenance at Wake Forest. "You could be packing healthy lunches, but at school your child exchanges food with someone else."

Miller says parents can increase the chances their children will eat the items in their lunch boxes by following these tips: use the healthy foods your children like; offer them a choice of those foods; and be creative in your presentation. Offering a unique combination of foods, for example, can make healthy eating fun and more appealing to younger, school-age children.

"Apple slices paired with a dip may be more attractive than just plain apple slices," Miller says.

Packing a lunch for children also requires taking the time to assemble it. Miller says parents who are pressed for time can take advantage of the ready-to-eat healthy foods available in most grocery stores.

"We can make impacts with convenient foods," says Miller, whose son prefers ready-to-eat dried fruit to fresh fruit. "The bags of peeled baby carrots sort of set the wheels in motion. Now, the food industry is doing similar things with other foods. You can buy sliced apples, peeled oranges, or grapes picked off the stem and ready to pop in your mouth."

Even if parents pack a healthy lunch their kids will eat, there is still the problem of tempting vending machine items and cafeteria staples such as pizza and french fries. In compliance with the Child Nutrition and WIC (the USDA's special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children) Reauthorization Act, signed into law June 2004 by President Bush, many schools are changing the items offered in vending machines and cafeterias. However, the law gives school districts some flexibility and may not eliminate all foods high in fat and sugar. This is why Miller says the second, and perhaps most important thing, parents can do to get their kids to eat healthy lunches at school is talk to them about food and nutrition.

"As a new parent, I thought there's no way a kid is going to be able to understand what kinds of food he or she should eat," Miller says. "But, if you give kids some credit and talk to them about why some foods are good everyday foods and why others should be eaten once in a while, they get it."

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