All over the country parents are banding together to make sure kids eat healthy food at school. Here's why — and how you can join them.

By Jennifer Nelson

All About School Lunches

In living rooms and lunch rooms, in meeting halls and school kitchens, there’s a quiet revolution going on. “Parents are discovering what their kids are eating for lunch and they’re horrified,” says Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of What to Eat (North Point Press). What’s more, they’re taking action. “I see it as a major national movement,” says Nestle.

The action is inspired not only by the age-old desire to get kids to eat healthfully but also by the childhood obesity epidemic that’s alarming parents and experts alike. Our hooked-on-tech kids are exercising less and eating more of the wrong things — a potentially dangerous mix. Amazingly, some of that bad eating is happening in a place you’d think would know better: school. Kids are moving through the lunch line and ending up with chips, cookies, and soda on their trays where there should be fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, whole grains, and milk or 100 percent fruit juice.

As awareness of child nutrition problems grows, there has been some progress. Just last spring three top soft-drink companies voluntarily agreed to remove sugary drinks from school cafeterias and vending machines. Congress recently passed the Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act, which calls on the USDA to update its decades-old standard for drinks and snack foods sold with school lunches.

Congress also passed a school wellness policy that must be implemented this fall. The bill says that schools participating in the National School Lunch Program must set goals for nutrition education, physical activity, food served, and other ways of promoting student wellness. Unfortunately, the bill has no teeth. “It leaves it up to the school districts to decide how they’re going to do it and gives no additional funding and no enforcement,” says Nestle.

Clearly, more change is necessary — especially given that rewards are relatively quick and measurable. According to one recent survey, when parents get involved with what’s served in cafeterias, kids are about 25 percent less likely to be overweight. “Our school system is thinking about weighing every child each year and giving the schools an ‘obesity index,’” says Emily Paulsen, the Bethesda, Maryland, mother of Eli, 10, and Maya, 6. “I think the money would be much better spent on improving the quality of school lunches.”

Responding to the growing government pressure, some districts have already begun redesigning their menus to include healthier foods. And they’ve also banned soda and reduced prices of healthy items to encourage kids to buy them. But just as often it is concerned parents like you who have initiated change — and the climate for improving school lunches has never been better.

Getting Involved

How are things going in the cafeterias in your district? Are you ready to grab some interested friends and take action to improve what your kids are eating at school? Get started with these strategies.

  • Gather support. Ask the school nurse, the PE teacher, a local physician, or a parent who’s a professional dietitian to help you research, brainstorm, and make a plan for change. Nutritional expertise is especially important to help you decide exactly what changes you need. And it will give you more credibility when you begin to press for what you want. Bring up your concerns at a PTA meeting; members may be willing to be part of your task force.
  • Boost your knowledge. Take a look at the USDA school meals page at to learn more about how the school lunch program works and the legal standards that lunches have to meet. While you’re at it, get examples of healthy menus from districts around the country on the USDA site, Arrange to visit your kid’s school to see for yourself what’s being served.
  • Meet with the school. With some members of your committee, ask the superintendent to back your efforts. You may be able to get school board members to back you as well.
  • Invite student participation. The kids are the ones who buy the food, so changes based on their input give you a better chance of success. Arrange several focus groups—gatherings of 20 to 25 students to answer simple questions about what they like and don’t like about the current lunches. Ideally, get help from a committee member who also works at the school — the nurse, PE teacher, marketing teacher.
  • Draft a proposal. Write up the changes you’re requesting, being very specific. Emphasize what you want to happen rather than the things you don’t like — people respond better to positives than negatives. Your outline should include the results of your research with students, and might list foods to be deleted or altered, and those you’d like offered. Don’t forget to address what’s in the vending machines; lots of kids skip lunch and snack on chips and soda instead, if they’re available. And not all changes have to do with food. Many kids say they grab junk because the 20 minutes usually allocated for lunch isn’t enough time to get in line to buy and eat anything more complicated. It’s a long shot, but maybe your school can find ways to offer kids a more relaxed meal.
  • Be realistic. You may not get everything you want the minute you ask for it, but don’t give up. The school’s ability to achieve your goals will be complicated by things like its budget and the type and quality of government-subsidized foods available to them.
  • Keep your eyes on the prize. Schools can be intensely political places. Don’t get drawn into unnecessary personality conflicts and power struggles. Remind yourself, and others when necessary, that your goal is always to help the kids.

Healthy Lunch Ideas

What's in a Good Lunch?

  • Colorful veggies: “You want an appealing salad bar so kids will take what’s offered,” says Andrea Giancoli, RD, of the American Dietetic Association. And the brighter the veggies, the more nutritious. “Our kids favor baby carrots and raw broccoli with dip or salsa,” says Penny McConnell, director of Food and Nutrition Services, Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia.
  • Whole grains: The fiber in whole wheat and brown rice fills kids up and gets them used to different tastes.
  • Less fat: Whole milk is unnecessary. Nonfat or low-fat yogurt is an option for non-milk drinkers. Lean proteins are better, as are less oily salad dressings.
  • New foods: Kids should be exposed regularly to unfamiliar vegetables like butternut squash, pea pods, and bean sprouts as well as ethnic dishes. Variety is vital to good nutrition, so increasing kids’ food repertoire is key. The more food choices they have, the more they’ll try.

What to Watch Out For

  • Too many potatoes: Better to have more green vegetables instead.
  • Very high sodium: “The recommended intake is 1,500 mg for a whole day, with 2,200 mg the upper limit,” says Giancoli. “Some school lunches can have as much as 2,200 mg in a single meal.”
  • No color: In some districts every food is the same blah brown — chicken, bun, curly fries, and apple slices, for instance. They lack the eye appeal that attracts kids to food.
  • Iceberg-only salad: Deeper greens (romaine or spinach) are healthier.

Be a Food Coach

Teach your kids to make better choices using these suggestions.

  • Talk it up. Without nagging, discuss your child’s lunch options with him. Explain how good nutrition fuels his body.
  • Monitor what goes down. Many schools have computer systems that allow parents to go online to see what kids are buying. (You prepay your child’s meals and when she goes through the line she just punches in her PIN.) For more info on one such system, go to
  • Have them cook. Learning to make healthy food at home can create good habits elsewhere, according to Marjorie Sawicki, a dietician at the School of Public Health at Saint Louis University.

What Kids Love

“Nothing goes on our menus that hasn’t been tested by our kids during our tasting parties,” says Penny McConnell. Below, two sample menus (all bread except breadsticks is whole grain).

Day One

  • Spaghetti with meat sauce or marinara sauce with breadstick
  • Chicken fillet with bun
  • Salmon salad sandwich with baked chips
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Yogurt with hot pretzels
  • Choice of two: mixed vegetables, tossed salad, pineapple, red or white grapes
  • Salad options: chicken caesar with hot pretzel or chef’s salad with cheese and hot pretzel

Day Two

  • Stuffed-crust cheese or stuffed-crust pepperoni pizza
  • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • Yogurt with hot pretzels
  • Choice of two: minestrone soup, frozen orange pop, tossed salad, chilled pears
  • Salad options: chef’s salad with salmon and hot pretzel or chef’s salad with cheese and hot pretzel

Moms Who Made a Difference

Kendra Dahlen, Mom to Kyle Murphy, 16

School district: Olympia, Washington

The problem: Too much greasy food — while a nearby school put in organic salad bars.

How she got started: Kendra and an acquaintance on the school board formed a task force with other parents, teachers, and the food service director. And, Kendra says, “We gave high priority to involving the kids.” More than 2,500 students met in focus groups and shared their ideas.

What she wanted: Yogurt bar with toppings, pasta and baked potato bars, more fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh sandwiches on whole wheat bread. Yogurt, string cheese, and milk in vending machines.

What she got: After six months, 100 percent fruit juices, granola-topped yogurt parfaits, a variety of freshly made salads and sandwiches (some on whole wheat bread), and pasta bars with veggie toppings.

Barbara Kimmel, Mom to Seth, 9, and Danny, 12

School district: Chester, New Jersey

The problem: Unhealthy and unappealing food. “The vegetables looked like they’d been cut five days ago,” says Barbara. Snack choices were potato chips and processed fruit strips.

How she got started: Barbara and another mom formed a group of parents, administrators, and teachers. With the school nurse and the librarian, the group decided on goals and then met with the school’s food services contractor.

What she wanted: Less ground beef, light rather than full-fat cheese, baked chicken to replace fried, more fruits and vegetables, yogurt as a snack.

What she got: In three months, more chicken and pasta dishes, more fruits and vegetables. Bottled water and 100 percent fruit juice. Low-fat salad dressing.

LaDonna Redmond, Mom to Wade, 8, and Taylor, 6

School district: Chicago, Illinois

The problem: Wade is allergic to dairy, eggs, shellfish, and peanuts. LaDonna had been packing his lunches, but he was eager to buy like the other kids. She discovered that his school had very limited offerings — of unhealthy food. “My son isn’t the only one who can’t eat grilled cheese sandwiches or cheeseburgers,” she says.

How she got started: LaDonna asked the principal how they could team up to improve school lunches. She asked parents and local nutritionists to get involved and arranged for dietary interns from Chicago’s Loyola University to teach kids about healthier eating.

What she wanted: A salad bar with more fruits and vegetables, and nutrition education for the kids.

What she got: By the end of the school year, salad bars. Teachers doing lessons on nutrition and portion control. Vending machines overhauled to replace high-fat snacks with baked chips and low-sugar options. Sodas banned.