10/04/2013 02:34 pm ET Updated Dec 04, 2013

Lunch Monitor: Helping Your Child Eat Better in School


I was recently a part of an event that set the world record for the most number of kids cooking with their parents. Having cooked with my Grandmother Helga growing up, I loved seeing so many parents instilling interest and enthusiasm for cooking with their kids. However, one comment I heard over and over at the event was from the parents, who are working hard to promote healthy habits at home, but wonder if similar messages are being taught at school.

Whether it's from parents themselves or in the news, the state of school lunches is getting a lot of attention and for good reason. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association said that nearly 40 percent of an average child's daily calories are eaten while they're in school. Parents want to ensure that their kids are getting fresh, nutritious, and tasty food and schools want to make sure that food satisfies students so they are attentive in class. These objectives sound similar, but they're not.

Packing lunches and going over menus is a great way to make small changes in the way your kids eat. You can also go a step farther and help change school cafeteria menus. Most schools lack the funds to makeover their kitchens, but parents can help. How can you make a difference? Work with your school to help make positive changes together. Some parents I've met have joined their children's school's health and wellness committee. Another suggestion is to observe Meatless Monday, an initiative that I'm a big fan of.

Here are some ideas you can try at home: Go over the school menus and talk with your child about what items he or she likes to eat. If kids don't recognize some of the foods, add them to the grocery list and try them as a family. When I was a student in Sweden, lunch usually consisted of some kind of smoked, grilled or cured fish, some potatoes and greens. While that meal may seem exotic to American school kids today, what I didn't have growing up was exposure to other ethnic flavors and ingredients. Make some Latin, Asian or African-inspired meals and your children won't be surprised if arroz con pollo, spring rolls or couscous salad makes it onto the menu at school.

Of course, some foods are both familiar and nutritious, like most whole grains. Whole grains, like brown rice, are high in fiber and help keep you feeling fuller, longer. This is one example of something that can be found in the cafeteria or parents can choose to pack for lunch, like the Fully Loaded Rice recipe found here.

Want another option? I've recently teamed up with The Uncle Ben's Brand on their Ben's Beginners Cooking Contest. We not only broke the record for the most families cooking together, but they're going even further to encourage kids to cook. The Ben's Beginners Cooking Contest not only rewards kids for getting in the kitchen at home with a cash prize, but there's also a prize for schools -- the three schools with the most participation in the contest will each win a $30,000 school cafeteria makeover.

It's the small things that can make a big impact so I encourage all of you to see what changes you can make with your family. Post your ideas and images on my Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages using the hashtag #schoollunch and I can't wait to hear from you all.

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