But some healthy-school-lunch advocates believe that as long as the school is truly serving healthy, tasty food (not chemical-containing processed food with a mile-long list of ingredients), a school ban on lunches from home could actually benefit kids. "When you do this, there's no peer pressure about what to eat and what not to eat," explains author and healthy-school-lunch advocate Chef Ann Cooper, known as the Renegade Lunch Lady. "There's no trying to get one kid to eat broccoli when another kid is eating Lunchables."
In fact, Cooper previously worked at The Ross School in New York, where children did not bring lunch from home, in an attempt by the school to curb eating junk food during school hours. "I believe, as educators, we need to educate the entire time kids go to school. That means we have to use the lunch period as part of that day," says Cooper, who notes that this can only be done successfully if the school cafeteria is serving healthy food—not chicken nuggets, tater tots, corn dogs, and reheated frozen entrées.
Administrators at the Chicago school now making headlines with its lunch ban, Little Village, have told reporters that the no-homemade-lunch policy restricts students from bringing soda, chips, and other junk food to lunch, forcing them to eat what they call a healthier school lunch. But the ban raises many questions, such as what about the kids who had been eating healthy brown-bag lunches from home? Beyond that, unless the school café is preparing food with fresh ingredients, students are likely being exposed to the chemicals that often lurk in processed foods, ones that are detrimental to children's health, such as BPA, artificial food dyes, and pesticides, as well as genetically engineered ingredients.
Here's what to do now to ensure healthy school lunches before your child's school tries to enact a homemade-lunch ban.
• Sample the state of your kids' school lunch. Cooper suggests actually going to your child's school and eating the school lunch. Parents' palates could help spark healthier school lunches in the district. Meet with the school board after your sampling to find ways to cut excess sugar, fat, and salt from school lunches. Parents can also ask to read the school's wellness policy, or attend board meetings, in an attempt to start making school lunches healthier.
• Embrace bento boxes. Tap into Japanese tradition and use these bento box recipes to create healthy meals for your child to take to school. You can use these handy boxes that promote small portion sizes in very simple ways, too. Instead of buying packaged, processed foods of any type, Cooper recommends using the compartmentalized, little boxes and filling with cut up fresh fruits or veggies, and serving with dip. You can also serve half a sandwich or wrap and serve with some dried nuts or fruit in the little compartments. "It doesn't have to be a big deal," says Cooper. "Include your kids in the process. That's the best thing to do."
• Be wary of school soda replacements. If you've managed to get your child's school to pull soda from school vending machines, make sure the replacement drinks aren't also laden with sugar, artificial food coloring, and other harmful ingredients. Here's an example of a healthy swap: In place of Gatorade, stock them with organic electrolyte-enhanced water Olade, which has 20 calories per 16-ounce bottle.
• Channel a chef. Chefs are taking a major interest in healthy school lunch initiatives. The main point? Healthy food can't be boring. Team up with a local chef with an interest in sustainable, delicious food choices, and see if he or she can help your child's school develop a more palatable healthy lunch plan. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Chefs Move to Schools website can help you connect with a local chef.
• Snag safer school gear. Want to protect your child from other sources of unhealthy chemicals, such as toxic school supplies? Veto vinyl backpacks, snag stainless steel straws, and check out these other options in Your A+ Guide to Green School Supplies.