Then it’s time to take control of the midday meal. If you don’t have time to prepare a nutrient-packed lunch every morning, you can still take advantage of the cafeteria’s convenience. Just be sure to consult this guide to the best and worst cafeteria meals first.
Scrambled Eggs and Bacon
10 g fat (4 g saturated)
550 mg sodium
A study from St. Louis University found that people starting their day with eggs consumed 264 fewer calories than people eating bagels for breakfast. The reason? Protein and good fat are important elements of satiety, working diligently to keep your kid’s belly full and prevent those midmorning cravings that lead to empty-calorie consumption.
3 g fat (0 g saturated)
5 g carbohydrates
True, the calories from oatmeal come mostly from carbohydrates, but with each bowl comes a dose of soluble fiber, which helps slow the absorption of the carbs, keeping kids’ blood sugar levels—and thus their energy and concentration levels—more stable.
Ham and Egg on an English Muffin
8 g fat (3 g saturated)
610 mg sodium
Not even the most malicious cafeteria cook could mess this one up: low-calorie bread, an egg, and a few slices of lean ham. Protein and healthy fat are two great ways to wake up; the only thing that’s missing is fiber, and that can be corrected easily enough by using a whole-grain English muffin.
22 g fat (12 g saturated, 3 g trans)
1,100 mg sodium
Here’s the standard biscuit recipe: flour, lard, buttermilk. So it’s not hard to imagine how this greasy, sausage-stuffed breakfast sandwich packs such a wallop. The fact that biscuits are one of the biggest transporters of trans fat only makes the need to avoid this breakfast bomb all the more vital.
French Toast with Syrup and Margarine
18 g fat (5 g saturated)
67 g carbohydrates
The only thing vaguely nutritious about French toast is the egg in which the bread is battered, but even that is drowned out by a flood of melted margarine and sugary syrup.
Bagel with Jelly
12 g fat (1 g saturated)
385 mg sodium
Bagels may look harmless, but behind each bite is a mouthful of refined carbohydrates. When a flood of quick-burning carbs enters the bloodstream, blood sugars rise rapidly and your body panics and begins to store fat. Jelly only makes matters worse, since most jellies found in school cafeterias have more sugar in them than fruit.
Roast Beef and Gravy
11 g fat (4 g saturated)
625 mg sodium
Made from a lean cut of beef, a few slices of roast beef prove to be a relatively low-fat, low-calorie source of protein. And since cafeteria gravies are invariably of the “instant” variety, the only minor threat they pose is of adding a bit of extra sodium to the meal.
Chili with Shredded Cheese
12 g fat (4 g saturated)
570 mg sodium
This cheesy, gooey mess is actually good for your kid? Hard to believe, but beyond being packed with enough protein to keep her full and focused the rest of the school day, a bean-laced bowl of red gives your kid plenty of fiber and disease-fighting antioxidants. Tastes great, is more filling, fights against cancer. What more could you want?
Grilled Chicken Sandwich
10 g fat (2 g saturated)
550 mg sodium
The nonfried corollary to one of the cafeteria’s most ubiquitous items is about as good as it gets. Skip the mayo in favor of ketchup, mustard, or barbecue sauce and, with any luck, your kid will welcome the addition of a bit of produce.
7 g fat (1 g saturated)
200 mg sodium
Cafeteria Tots usually avoid the harsh fry treatment in favor of a simple bake, which keeps the calorie count down.
14 g fat (5 g saturated)
575 mg sodium
Wraps start with the dreaded tortilla, to which the lunch ladies add fatty dressing (usually ranch or Italian), cheese (usually processed), and produce (usually token shreds of lettuce).
French Bread Cheese Pizza
19 g fat (8 g saturated)
930 mg sodium
The thick, doughy crust used by most school cafeterias packs on a heavy carb and sodium load, plus it provides the structural integrity for a haphazard application of cheese, doubling down on the calorie count.
Crispy Chicken Sandwich
19 g fat (7 g saturated)
735 mg sodium
If they’re going to take an innocent chicken breast, bread it, deep-fry it, and cover it in mayo, your kid may as well opt for the hamburger.
18 g fat (7 g saturated)
400 mg sodium
French fries probably won’t be lucky enough to avoid the boiling oil, where they soak up most of their saturated fat. More often than not, they contain as many calories as the entrée sharing the plate with them.