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School Lunch and Diabetes Meal Planning

School lunches are notoriously high in carbohydrates and fats, but most school lunch programs now are trying to be healthier, according to Emily Werner, RD, LDN, a dietitian in the Pediatric, Adolescent and Young Adult section at Joslin Diabetes Center.  Though not every meal is nutritious, schools usually offer healthier options as well.  With a little advance planning, lunches purchased at school or brought from home can be healthy and appropriate for your child’s diabetes meal plan.

A Matter of Balance

“The biggest thing is to help your child learn how to balance choices,” Werner says. They can have the pizza, but should then choose a fruit and skim milk to balance the meal. Or for those on more restrictive meal plans, choose a salad to go with the pizza.  Generally, the earlier you start educating your child about healthy choices and portion control, the better.

Good Home Habits

It’s up to parents to make recommendations and ask them what they ate at school. “But don’t worry too much,” Werner says. You can always compensate with other meals you serve at home that day.

Establishing good eating habits at home plays a huge role.  “If 90 percent of the time they make great choices, ice cream at lunch is sometimes okay,” she says. It’s also possible that if they eat well at home, they may not even be tempted to buy ice cream or chips at school.

Pack a Lunch

A lunch packed from home gives you much more control over your child’s choices. You can pack a more nutritious and filling lunch with whole grain breads, fruit, and low-fat snacks.  “It’s a safer bet, but not always realistic to bring,” she says.  “It can depend on your budget and your child’s attitude about bringing lunch.”

Mix and Match

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing: buy or bring. Your child can buy lunch, and instead of having the school’s desert, pack a fat-free pudding.  Mixing and matching is a perfectly fine way to balance taste and temptation.

The availability of school nurses to help with carb counting for children with diabetes varies among school systems, but you can usually get nutrition information for meals they’re serving in the upcoming month. That way, you and your child can plan choices ahead of time.  If you're not happy with the food choices your child's school offers, Werner says to speak with the principal about healthier options.

Page last updated: September 20, 2019