Making healthy choices at the school canteen

Making healthy choices at the school canteen

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More school canteens are providing healthy options these days, but how do you navigate the menu, and how often, without feeling guilty?

The school tuckshop can be a handy time-saver for busy parents, but it’s not without its own challenges. 

For starters, you need to work out which foods and snacks are nutritious choices, and which to avoid. Then there’s the matter of ensuring your child actually eats what you order, plus dealing with the pressure to order treats. 

These simple strategies will help you get the lunch order right, every time.

Go for green

Increasingly, school canteens are adopting the traffic-light system, which indicates which foods are healthy or unhealthy choices. 

“The more ‘green’ options you include, the more nutritious food choices you’ll be making,” says Angela Stradwick, paediatric dietitian at Bloom Nutrition Studio . 

If the tuckshop doesn’t have this system, scan the menu for wholefoods-based items, including vegetables, fruit, lean proteins, dairy and wholegrains. 

“Vegetable-based stir-fries, potatoes with salad and lean meat toppings, meat and salad rolls and sushi are all good examples of what to choose,” advises Stradwick. 

When it comes to snacks, go for nutrient-dense options like cheese and biscuits, hummus with vegetable sticks, fruit salad with yoghurt or dried fruit and seed mixes. 

What to avoid

Steer clear of ‘red’ items on the canteen menu, or anything that’s deep-fried, wrapped in pastry or high in salt or sugar. 

“A tuckshop lunch should be an extension of your home pantry, and what you select should be what you’d put in their lunch if you were making it yourself,” says Kate Di Prima, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.  

Treat foods should be timed for weekends rather than school days, when you can balance them as part of an active day. 

Getting kids involved

If you’re going to spend on a canteen lunch, you want to ensure your child actually eats it, and getting them involved in the pre-ordering process helps. 

“Provide your child with three or four options that you’re happy for them to choose from and let them select their preference from there,” suggests Stradwick. “That way, you still have some control over the options available, but your child has some control in being able to select from their own preferences.” 

Once kids reach high school, pre-ordering tends to be replaced by a student card that parents top up with money, allowing them free rein. 

Just make sure you check it every couple of weeks to ensure they’re choosing the healthy options. 

The ‘DIY’ option

Canteen lunches are convenient but including more home-prepared lunches can be easier than you think. 

“Use the weekend to bake and freeze savoury muffins or slices, or send them in with dinner leftovers like lean meat and salads,” suggests Stradwick. 

If you’re prepping lunch on the day, a can of tuna, half an avocado and some wholemeal crackers, plain milk poppers, fruit that doesn’t require chopping or dried fruit and seed mixes are nourishing and time-saving options.