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September 2008
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Good Health to Go
Eating Smart at School

Cartoon of food and drink containers running

“Want my pizza bagel?” “Awesome, here’s my blueberries!”

Is your daughter, son or grandchild a master dealer at lunch? Packing a healthy school lunch is helpful only if the food ends up in the tummy—or gets traded for something else that isn’t loaded with sugar, fat or salt. But even in the chaotic, wolf-down-your-lunch-to-get-to-recess-as-soon-as-possible world of the school cafeteria, children can make smart food choices. Parents and caregivers play a key role in helping children learn the fundamentals of healthy living—eating well and staying active—whatever pressures they face outside home.

Child nutrition specialist Dr. Daniel Raiten at NIH says that one of the most important strategies for parents to help kids stay healthy is to foster good eating habits at home. Raiten talks often to kids in schools and finds that few understand what a healthy “diet” means.

“Most think that diet is a verb— what you do to lose weight,” Raiten says. “I tell them that diet is the mix of foods that gets into their body, and healthy nutrition is the end result of eating good food in a healthy diet.”

Try to help children see healthful eating as a natural and fun part of every day. “My own kids help me cook,” Raiten adds, “and we sit down and eat our meals together every night.”

Another way to encourage healthy eating is to sample a variety of fruits and vegetables from the grocery store or local farmers market. Chances are that even “expensive” produce is still cheaper than most processed foods on supermarket and convenience store shelves.

Teach your kids how to be savvy consumers. Enlist them as food detectives at the grocery store. Set some standards for healthy foods and show them how to read Nutrition Facts labels, which list the nutrition content of pre-packaged foods. Then let them choose a few items that make the grade. If you’re not sure what to look for on labels, see ~dms/foodlab.html.

Making foods totally forbidden is likely to backfire, Raiten says, “so keep the guilt out of it.” Better to chat regularly with your child about good eating habits, he says, and praise him or her for making smart choices in the grocery, at school or in a restaurant.

If kids are eating well outside of school, you may wonder if their diet at school really matters. The answer is a resounding “yes.” Research has shown that appropriate levels of fat, sugar, vitamins and minerals like iron contribute to development, learning and general behavior.

Packing a healthy school lunch can be a family activity. Involving kids in the decision process can help them learn how to make good choices and also feel more enthusiastic about their lunch options. Most are more likely to eat meals they help prepare. Since weekday mornings can be a crazy time crunch, pack lunches the night before. Have your child choose a few healthy items, such as pretzel sticks, popcorn, snap peas, fresh strawberries or pudding.

If your children buy lunch at school, make sure to talk to them about how to choose healthier food options, and why it’s so important.

Parents need to teach children not only what to eat, but how much. People tend to blame restaurants’ super-sized meals for Americans’ expanding waistlines, but portion distortion has become a part of our everyday lives. In a 2006 study, researchers randomly gave participants a small or large bowl and a small or large serving spoon, and everyone served themselves ice cream. Those given a bigger bowl and spoon ate the most—a whopping 57% more than people with small ones.

The lesson is to pay attention to serving size. Use smaller dishes and containers for treats, and bigger ones for fruits and veggies.

Healthy food and an appreciation for eating smart is only half of the health equation, however. In a recent study funded by NIH (see this month’s Health Capsule), more than 90% of grade-school children met the recommended level of 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. That’s the good news. By age 15, however, far fewer boys and girls were cycling, swimming or just plain running around. Only 31% met the recommended level on weekdays, while 17% met the recommended level on weekends.

Upping physical activity is a key goal of the NIH-sponsored health awareness campaign We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity and Nutrition!). This science-based national education program provides useful resources for teachers, parents and community program planners. Making healthy food choices, increasing physical activity and cutting screen time are WeCan!’s main goals.

We Can! has lots of helpful tips for fitting more physical activity into the family’s daily routine. It also has tools to help parents pick healthier foods and drinks and plan healthier meals for the family. For kids, it provides an easy way to think about food choices. GO foods are great anytime; SLOW foods are all right to have sometimes or less often; and WHOA foods should be eaten only once in a while or on special occasions. Visit or call toll-free, 1-866-35-WECAN, to learn more.

In today’s media-soaked society, kids and teens—even preschoolers—are exposed to a flood of messages that counter home- and school-based teaching about nutrition and health. Media-Smart Youth is an NIH-sponsored after-school program for young people from 11 to 13 years old. It challenges young people to analyze and recognize ways the media tries to get their attention, and to evaluate these media messages for accuracy and for consistency with their ideas about being healthy. Visit to learn more.

Remember, good eating habits start at home. Children are much more likely to do what you do, not what you say. So eat smart and teach your kids how to make good choices themselves.

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Wise Choices iconWise Choices
Good Health to Go

Pack a healthy lunch kids want to eat:

  • Shrink the portion size and up the variety.
  • Read the Nutrition Facts label before you pack it. Look out for junk food disguised by clever packaging to be healthful.
  • Splash a few drops of lemon juice on sliced fruit to keep it fresh and appetizing.
  • Make a sandwich with turkey or other lean filling on multigrain bread. Try using mustard or a low-fat mayonnaise instead of the high-fat variety.
  • Freeze juice pouches and boxes so they’ll stay cold.
  • Re-use containers. It’s greener and helps keep food bruise-free.
  • Pack fun with a cool sticker, note or joke.

Links iconWeb Sites

Weight Control Information Network

Hidden Persuaders: The Mindless Eating That Adds Pounds

We Can!

Media-Smart Youth

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