Help Kids Make Healthier Choices at School

Are your kids eating healthy, nutritious lunches in the school cafeteria? In his book Slim By Design, Brian Wansink, Ph.D., shares tips for how you can get your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables at school, and what you can do to help the school’s lunchroom become ‘slim by design’.

The only worse school day than Vaccination Day is Report Card Day. It’s the day to face the music. While Tiger Moms are obsessed with this day, some other parents don’t care as much, and kids mostly care in relation to their parents. Report cards are a way of checking in and reminding both kids and parents how the year is going—the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What if there were lunchtime report cards? What if every Friday, parents got an email telling them what their little angels bought for lunch that week? It would tell which of their kids bought cookies and Gatorade and which ones bought apples and white milk. As with real report cards, you can imagine that some parents couldn’t care less, and others would lose sleep over it. Some parents might care more about what the kids are eating, and others might care more about how much they’re spending. But would it change what kids order?

Each Friday for a month, we sent parents the list of all the foods their kids (K-12) bought for school lunch. What happens when families get these report cards is kind of funny. The bottom line is that little Valerie and little Teddy mysteriously start buying cookies one-third less often and start taking twice as much fruit.

You might think kids changed what they bought because their parents had heart-to-heart nutrition talks with them, but that’s not always the case. It seems that simply knowing someone is aware of what they’re doing—and maybe cares—gradually bumps these kids back into line. After all, Big Mother is watching.

While you can ask your children’s school to start a Lunchtime Report Card program, you don’t have to wait. All you need to do is ask, “Sooooo…what did you have for lunch today?”

Helping Schools Become Slim By Design

On the battleground of school lunches, the lunch lady reports to the school lunchroom manager, who reports to the food-service director for the whole school district. Unfortunately, the closer a person is to serving the food, the less power they have to make changes, and neither the manager nor the director has the dollars, time, or patience to listen to another helicopter parent or food extremist tell her what to do. They might, however, have time for someone who wants to help. Here’s what they say works:

  • Thank them for all they do. They do a big job on a small budget, and they usually just hear from the complainers.
  • Complete the Smarter Lunchroom Self-Assessment Scorecard. Besides showing how well your school is doing on a 100-point scale, it shows exactly what small, easy changes can be made to improve that score.
  • Tell them you learned about how there are low-cost/no-cost changes that can help kids eat better. Some are as simple as giving kids the healthy foods first; making them tasty by giving them a cool name; or making it less convenient to eat the indulgent foods. Maybe even print out some ideas to save them that step.
  • Ask how you can help. Maybe there’s an informal advisory board or a “Kitchen Cabinet” group you could join or start. The purpose would not be to critique but to help provide a solution. Enlist other parents from the PTA, and always think WWMcD—what would McDonald’s do?
  • Offer to put together a SNAC. Offer to assemble a SNAC (Student Nutrition Action Committee). You can run a discussion group about what easy nonfood changes the kids think could help them eat better. This can be an advisory committee, but it should also be the group that gets the work done and sees themselves as advocates for school lunch.
  • Enlist the Health and Wellness Committee. Every school district has this committee, and your food-service director is on it. Ask her how you can get involved in sharing these same low-cost/no-cost charges.

How does your child’s school lunchroom compare?

Take this 10-question, 2-minute quiz to see if your child’s school’s cafeteria is making them slimmer or heavier. The higher the score, the harder the school is trying to guide your child to make healthier food choices.

slim by design: mindless eating solutions for everyday life by brian wansink, ph.d.

From the book Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life by Brian Wansink, Ph.D. Copyright © 2014 by Brian Wansink. Reprinted with permission of William Morrow, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.