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A surprising amount of freedom and responsibility falls on our pre-teens’ and teens’ shoulders when they transition into middle school and high school. Instead of pre-decided lunches set out on trays, many middle and high schools offer a wide variety of options in the cafeteria: your child could choose chicken strips and french fries for lunch each day or settle on a big bag of chips and a coke. That's why you can help by fostering healthy habits now. We consulted the experts for their top tips!

How to Encourage Smart Eating Habits

For example, many young people are choosing a vegetarian lifestyle without having a backup plan for protein intake, which is not okay. It’s essential for students to understand that being vegetarian means choosing plant-based protein in place of meat. These types of diet trends can be less healthy without the proper understanding of basic nutritional concepts.

Create a “lunch plan”

Sit with your child to create a list of 5-7 “go to” lunches that can be assembled by you or your adolescent without too much extra effort. Use this list to guide your shopping list.

Help them do some food prep ahead of time to have diced and sliced veggies and fruits on hand for easy packing.

Help build balanced lunches

The blueprint for a balanced lunch relies on selecting foods from each food group.

Proteins: Use this guide to ensure your child packs enough protein to be satisfied

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Whole grains: Emphasize whole grains by choosing breads, wraps, crackers, and grains like brown rice, quinoa and multi grain pasta, which can be used for cold grain salads.

Fruits & Vegetables: Remind your child that they need a fruit, vegetable (or both!) with lunch to round out the meal and help meet daily intake goals. You can also pack nutritious, sustaining snacks that “fill the gaps” in daily nutrition.

Talk about the salad bar

Many students discover salad bars for the first time in middle or high school. This can be enticing because there’s a ton of variety and it’s a faster option than waiting in other lines. Encourage your child to opt for more than just iceberg lettuce and croutons. Instead, they should fill up on options like fruits, veggies, hard boiled eggs, beans/lentils/peas, and grilled chicken.

Get involved to push for new school policies

Parents can also support the adoption of “smarter lunchroom” strategies in their child’s school through involvement in the PTA or wellness committee. The school foodservice may already be trying some of these things, like placing white milk in the front of milk coolers and flavored milk in the back. Or, displaying fruit in a well-lit and colorful bowl near the register. Whenever you can voice your support of smarter strategies, your children will benefit.

Sources/ Expert Tips:

-Kitty Broihier MS, RD, LD, Scientific Advisory Panel at

-Allison Stowell, M.S., RD, CDN, and dietitian for Guiding Stars

-Garrick Brown, MS, RD, LD and Nutritionist at Guiding Stars

This is not a sponsored post.

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