The Healthiest Cafeteria Choices, According to Nutritionists

updated Sep 30, 2020
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What we put into our bodies can make or break our day. This is especially true for kids, who have to juggle the demands of school, extracurricular activities, and friends (and frenemies). Parents and guardians can usually maintain a watchful eye over what kids eat for breakfast and dinner, but lunchtime can sometimes be a free-for-all. And while packing lunch is almost always the healthiest option, it’s not always a realistic one.

Fortunately, cafeteria lunch options have made big strides over the past few years. Before a focus on healthier eating in schools really took off, cafeteria staples were as follows: pizza, pasta, mashed potatoes, french fries, and chicken nuggets. Now many cafeterias offer an entrée or two, sides like vegetables and pasta, a few beverage choices, and maybe even a salad bar — and most school systems are required to serve only whole grains.

While it’s still a challenge for school cafeterias to implement significant changes given calorie and nutritional requirements, as well as a strict budget, healthy and balanced lunches are indeed possible when sliding that tray through the line.

Here are a few tips from nutritionists on how to eat well in the cafeteria — whether that cafeteria is at a school or in a workplace.

Hit the salad bar.

If the school has a salad bar, kids should be encouraged to load up, according to Clara Norfleet, a registered dietician based in Asheville, NC. She says this option is ideal, not just for the leafy greens, but also because it allows the students to have a hands-on experience in choosing their own food, which makes healthy eating more exciting. Also, kids can hit almost all of the important food groups by including hard-boiled eggs, cheese, and/or deli meats for protein.

If they turn their nose up at the idea of a salad, Robyn Coale, a registered dietician and nurse practitioner in New York, suggests more fun-to-eat ideas like chicken and veggie tacos. Kids can take a wrap from the sandwich area, chicken from the salad bar (or the chicken entrée option), and veggies of choice to make their own creation.

Choose grilled or baked, not fried and breaded.

Even though entrée choices are improving, fried and breaded foods still make a strong showing. Norfleet recommends that students reach for entrées that are grilled or baked whenever possible — so, say grilled chicken vs. chicken nuggets or chicken parm.

Say yes to pasta.

There’s no denying that kids love pasta and, thanks to updated nutritional standards, most grain-based meals are required to be made with whole grains. This means pasta can still be a good pick, as long as portion sizes are in check. Coale suggests that kids pair their pasta entrée with healthful sides, like a salad, orange slices, and milk for a more complete meal.

Get a side of veggies.

As for the sides, it almost goes without saying that fresh or steamed vegetables, like broccoli and carrots, are preferable to fries or mac and cheese. But Norfleet says if students aim to make most of their plate leafy greens and vegetables, a small serving of fries or mac and cheese is fine every once in a while.

Choose fruit, not fruit juice.

Kids can add even more nutritional value to their lunch by grabbing an apple, orange, or banana instead of sugar-loaded juice, and choosing milk or water as their main beverage of choice. If they do want to have juice for a drink at school, Rachael Devaux, the registered dietician blogger behind Rachael’s Good Eats, says it should be 100 percent fruit juice, with no sugar added.

What do your kids’ cafeteria options look like?