"What did you have for lunch today?"

Filed under: Mealtime, Nutrition: Health

Katie Workman

Welcome to Dishing it Out, ParentDish's weekly food column. Katie Workman lives in New York City with her husband and two boys, Jack and Charlie. By day she is the Editor-in Chief of the soon-to-be launched recipe website, Cookstr.com. Her posts will appear on Tuesday mornings. You can read all the Dishing it Out posts here.

School lunch is like a black hole for most parents. Obviously if you make your kid's lunch, you have a certain amount (note: CERTAIN amount) of control over what you child is eating for lunch. But for those of us whose kids eat a school lunch, this meal often remains a mystery. Maybe the school gives you a print out of what's on the menu for the week, maybe not. Maybe your kid is eating it ... or is he or she poking at at, eating the dessert, and then dumping the rest into the trash?

Besides the revolving daily offering, most schools also offer an alternative to the main choice to appease those kids who turn their noses up at the sloppy joes or turkey tetrazzini of the day. This is good, right? That means your kid has more choices, and is likely to find something good to eat, doesn't it?

This alternate choice actually brings up a bunch of questions. At my kids' school, there is a different, nicely thought out meal each day. But there is also a selection of everyday alternatives: various sandwiches, yogurt, and pasta. Theoretically, a kid could have a jelly sandwich on white bread every day (their school, like most, bans peanut butter due to the high number of kids with severe nut allergies), or a bowl of plain pasta.

This year the big food controversy at our school was focused on the bagel. Up until last year, a bagel with or without cream cheese was a daily lunch option. Many parents -- fully aware that their kids were having a bagel every single day for lunch, and nothing else -- asked the school to stop offering this. So, the bagels went away (though why a jelly sandwich on white bread is a better option is a fine question). But then a different contingency of parents protested, saying wait, hold on a minute, that's all my kid will eat! The discussions continue. I can't believe this, but when I was a kid, the daily alternative to the hot lunch was two (yes, two) peanut butter and marshmallow fluff sandwiches on white bread. Yikes. So, how would you vote: bagels or no bagels?

In theory having an alternative to the varied, and presumably nutritionally sound lunches is a good one -- if your kid doesn't like the main course of the day, then there is another option. But what if that option becomes the only thing they ever choose? And that option really isn't suitable to be a five-times-a-week complete midday meal? Clearly it's unfair to expect the teachers to monitor this across the board, though of course it would be nice to assume that if your kid was not making good food decisions on a regular basis, they would notice and bring it up.

So, if your kid's school provides lunch, it is worthwhile to ask how they provide choices, and what those choices are. And of course -- without grilling your kids (which will surely backfire) -- to engage your children in conversation to find out what they're eating. Ask questions like: What's your favorite lunch at school? What do you do when you don't like what's being offered? Depending on their age, you can make suggestions, or even talk to the teacher if your child is young, and you'd like to help steer your kid to try different things. But I know that I am always trying to find the balance between micro-managing their eating habits, and letting them learn to make their own choices.

And maybe sometimes you just need a jelly sandwich.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.