Environmental Changes in the School Cafeteria: How Parents Can Encourage Healthy Eating at Schools

July 10, 2012 Print Friendly and PDF

By Rebecca Davis-University of Maryland Extension

Recent news about changes to school lunch menus is exciting and long awaited, but many schools are still challenged by how to help children eat healthier while at school. How can you as a parent be a part of this change?  Ask the principal or school nurse if the school has a School Wellness Council.  If there isn’t one, offer to start a School Wellness Committee.  Ask other parents or community members to become involved.  If your Wellness Committee is new, ask someone from the School Foodservice department to be on the Wellness Committee.

Photo by USDAgov

As a Wellness Committee, decide what issues are important for the committee to address. Below are some suggestions the wellness committee can suggest to the School Foodservice. 

  • Arrange food so that the healthiest choices are at the children’s eye level;
  • Place the healthiest items at the beginning of the line;
  • Move salad bars and healthy extras like pieces of fruit next to the register. While waiting, students have time to consider something like a salad or apple;
  • Make healthy vegetable and fruit offerings the default side dishes and make less healthy side dishes available by request;
  • Use baskets, crates, or other attractive containers for apples, oranges and other whole fruit. These containers give food more appeal than stainless steel bins;
  • Create a healthy tray model;
  • Offer a wide variety of fruits, not just apples bananas and pears. Consider plums, peaches, apricots, etc. Also, when possible consider featuring a local fruit as “fruit of week,” or support your local farmer week;
  • Display a menu board that describes what foods, including sides, are available each day. Use stickers, decals, or pictures to feature the healthiest selections;
  • Use colorful posters and other images to promote healthy foods in the lines and around the cafeteria;
  • Use table tent cards to describe foods, food facts or other information or messages;
  • Serve desserts and snacks by request only instead of displaying them on the line;
  • Participate in a farm to school program if one is available in your area.;
  • Offer small tastings of new foods while students wait in line;
  • Give healthy foods fun and descriptive names like lean mean green beans.;
  • Start a healthy foods passport or frequent diners’ program. Have students stamp a passport when they select fruits, vegetables or whole fruit in their lunches. Students completing the passport receive a small (non-food) prize;
  • Invite a guest server to serve lunch in the cafeteria. Have students select a teacher or other special guest to serve healthy lunch options once per week;
  • Send home messages and reinforcements. Provide letters to send home that help students tell their parents what new fruits, vegetables and whole grains they are trying during lunch;
  • Promote nutrition through the school. Include announcements about nutrition or healthy lunch features during the morning announcements;
  • Food service staff can promote fruit, vegetable and whole grain consumption by suggesting students choose fruits to take with them to eat later or to praise students’ healthy selections to reinforce the behavior.

These are just a few suggestions to encourage healthy eating at your child’s school.  Suggest implementing one or two ideas per month so that cafeteria staff will understand that many of these are small, easy changes that take little effort or expense and will make a big difference to children’s health and well-being.

*Adapted from University of Maryland Extension and Maryland Department of Education Project Refresh Toolkit.

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This work is supported by the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, New Technologies for Ag Extension project.