We have witnessed firsthand how many schools are deeply committed to improving children’s nutrition to support student health, wellbeing and academic success. For nearly 10 years, we have listened, learned and partnered with school districts and worked alongside school food service leaders as they work to provide students with healthier choices.

Before the pandemic last spring, the National School Lunch Program served more than 30 million children at school every day. This school year looks different. The home kitchen is the new school cafeteria for many kids, and parents and guardians are left asking, “Now what?”

It’s National School Lunch Month, so we are sharing some of our favorite tried-and-true tips from school cafeterias working hard to serve nutritious, delicious and even adventurous lunches.

1. Create an Edible Education

The more children know about and feel connected to food, the more curious they become about how things grow and taste — and the more willing they are to try new foods. In fact, many school food service directors treat the cafeteria as a classroom. At home, get your child engaged by giving them a voice and the opportunity to participate. Invite them to help plan one lunch a week (or more!) and encourage them to help make the meal by reading the recipe or cutting, measuring and assembling ingredients.

2. Offer Variety & Reinforce Choice

Variety is a key component of healthy eating. School food service workers know all about the tough balance between making kids comfortable and inspiring them to consider new foods. But they’ve also learned that if you give kids good choices, kids will make good choices.

Lunch is a great time to introduce something new. This means both trying new foods and rotating the foods and type of foods you are eating. Keep in mind, when you introduce something new, don’t force it. When you continually expose kids to different flavors, they will eventually learn to eat (and enjoy!) a lot of new things.

Looking for new ways to introduce new foods and promote variety? Create a bento box-style lunch, which naturally encourages variety. Think of the separate containers as opportunities to diversify — something savory, something naturally sweet, something crunchy. Experiment with a range of colors, textures and flavors. Or set out a salad bar at home for the whole family’s lunch with a focus on raw veggies and fruits. Add hummus and other dips, cheese, whole grain crackers, lunch meats and nuts. This will give your child the opportunity to try many new foods and provide choice. If you have extra raw veggies leftover, roast them for dinner.

3. Make Small Changes

At Whole Kids Foundation, we believe that small changes can add up to lifelong heathy eating habits and improved long-term health. Try eating a rainbow of colors at every meal; eating your greens first; using whole grains; and avoiding artificial colors, flavors and preservatives. These victories may not seem huge, but add them all up and you can change your family’s health.

4. Make Lunchtime a Positive Experience

For students, lunchtime is a break from a day full of classroom instruction whether online or in the classroom. It is a time to relax and socialize. If possible, eat lunch with your child — outside if you are able. Studies show that eating together tends to promote better eating habits. Just remember to model good eating choices; parents have to eat what they want their children to eat!

Bonus Time-Saving Tips

Making breakfast, lunch and dinner every day and keeping an eye on nutrition is hard, especially when you don’t have a staff of food service workers in your kitchen! Here are a few time-saving shortcuts:

  • Prep ahead. On Sunday afternoon, or as you’re cooking dinner during the week, roast a big sheet pan of vegetables and cook extra proteins like tofu, beans and lentils to incorporate into lunches throughout the week.
  • Buy some, make some. For example, a store-bought rotisserie chicken makes many homemade meals easier like quesadillas, tacos, soups, wraps and pastas.
  • Love leftovers — and plan for them. Cook more than you need so you can transform tonight’s dinner into something completely different for lunch tomorrow. And make extra baked pasta dishes, chili or soup to freeze in individual portions for fast lunches.

Hungry for Recipes?

Discover dozens of recipes from Chef Ann Foundation developed by school food professionals, kid tested and perfected in school kitchens — all for making at home. Here’s a taste: