What would you include in your perfect school lunch?

A few weeks ago, my daughter took her first steps into formal education and entered kindergarten. I have been a little surprised to find this has involved a transition not only for her, but for me, too. Not only do her mother and I want her dressed comfortably and ready to learn, we have to plan or pack a meal that she will eat without us watching. Thus far we have been packing dinner leftovers from the night before, thinking that food from home would be comforting in an unfamiliar setting. But in the chaos of sending her across town to school, we are already searching for ways to make our morning routine easier, including signing her up for the school lunch program. But the nagging question remains: “What if she doesn’t like what they serve?”

On a whim yesterday I asked my daughter, “What would you include in your perfect school lunch?” With little hesitation she answered: “A hot dog, some rice and baby carrots. Fruit gummies and cherries for dessert.” And for a drink? “Water.” Not so bad, that is with the exception of the hot dog. But to be completely fair to her, the hot dog my daughter is talking about is, according to the package, “all natural uncured all beef without nitrites, gluten, MSG, antibiotics or hormones.” I have been known to eat worse — an occasional slice of low sodium spam.

Our ultimate goal as parents is to raise children who will make good choices, and that includes having a healthy relationship with food. I see the effects of unhealthy eating in my pediatric clinic in the obese children with elevated cholesterol already accelerating down the path towards diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But it is not just obesity and it is not just children. We all know friends and family members whose relationship with food is pathological: emotional eating, eating disorders and extreme dieting. We want our children to enjoy food, to be daring about trying new foods and to make healthy choices with the right nutritional balance. Just as important is having the self-awareness to know when they are full so they can stop eating.

I’m excited to say that starting this fall, schools will be key partners in achieving these goals. The USDA will adopt new nutrition standards for school meals as a part of the Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. This is the first of a three-year transition process which begins with lunch and extends to foods in vending machines to benefit the 32 million children who participate in meal programs at their schools. There will be more whole grain offerings. There will be efforts to reduce trans fats and sodium. Meals will be adjusted to contain the appropriate number of calories for the child’s age. And my daughter will be relieved to learn that fruit and vegetables, including cherries and carrots, will be available everyday. Some school districts in low income communities like Oakland have been taking school nutrition a step further. This is a win for our schools and our children.

So, now, who do I need to talk to about including all-natural- uncured-all-beef-antibiotic-free hot dogs on the menu?

Ricky Y. Choi is a pediatrician who blogs at SFGate and the Huffington Post San Francisco.  It reprinted with the author’s permission.

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