Only one school-lunch horror story sticks out in Alan Ammann's memory. But it's a scary one.
"There was one kid who would just bring in a soda, almost every day, and that's all he had for lunch," Ammann, a fifth-grade teacher at Julia Randall Elementary School, said. "It just made me cringe. I would offer him fruit, sandwiches and other things, but that was all he would have for lunch."
Eventually, Ammann sheepishly admits to having one other nightmarish school-lunch tale.
"As a child, I was one of those who would take my lunch money and buy an apple and Cheez-Its out of a vending machine rather than eating the school lunch."
Roy Sandoval, principal of Payson Elementary School, has witnessed some pretty frightening lunchroom scenarios, too.
"I have seen kids come with Snickers bars and Gummi Bears for lunch," Sandoval said. "And I've seen it over and over again. For many students, the lunch and breakfast they get here at school are the most nutritious and balanced meals they have all day."
As Sandoval knows, and as every thinking parent either knows or suspects, a well-nourished child is a ready-to-learn child. Food nourishes at every age and stage in a child's life and proper nutrition is crucial for social emotional and psychological development.
Making certain that your children eat healthy will enable them to establish a foundation of good nutrition and a healthful lifestyle. And that sentiment, Sandoval said, is put into every meal served within the Payson Unified School District.
"There are actually very strict national nutrition standards that the schools in this district adhere to," Sandoval said. "And at PES, our cafeteria manager makes every attempt to create meals that are healthy, but that the students actually want to eat. At $1.25 for lunches and $.75 for breakfasts across the district, it's the best deal in town."
Cafeteria managers do not have to do all the work. Parents can play a role in school meals, too.
Here are some ways you can help your child choose healthful meals, courtesy of the American Dietetic Association:
Get familiar with the menu. Keep a current school lunch menu in your kitchen and go over the menu with your child. Talk with him or her about making choices in the cafeteria line and practice at home.
Get involved. Join the parent advisory committee for the school food service program. If none exists, take charge and work with the school staff to set one up.
Support the nutrition education efforts at school. Find out what your child is learning, and try to apply those lessons at home.
If your child prefers to brown bag it to school, pack meals that are easy to prepare and fun to eat, as well as healthful, safe and nutritious. For example, sandwiches, raw veggies, crackers, string cheese, whole fruit and pudding are fun foods that still supply good nutrition.
Let children help plan and prepare school lunches. When they're involved, chances are they will resist trading their carrots for cookies.
Find out if your child prefers a brown bag, insulated bag or lunch box. A lunch box is easier to clean and it may keep food cool longer, but be sure to wash it after every use. If a brown bag is the tote of choice, use a new one every day.
Packing a safe lunch
For parents of brown-bagging children, the Partnership for Food Safety Education offers the following back-to-school refresher course on how to pack safe lunches:
Always keep it clean. Make sure your hands, food preparation surfaces and utensils are clean. Use hot, soapy water to effectively get rid of bacteria. Teach your children to wash their hands before they eat. Also wash fruits and vegetables before packing them in your child's lunch.
Be sure to keep hot foods such as soup, chili or stew hot by using an insulated bottle. Fill the bottle with boiling water and let it stand for a few minutes. Empty the bottle and then fill it with piping hot food. Keep the bottle closed until lunchtime.
Cold foods should stay cold, so invest in a freezer gel pack (available in supermarkets and kitchen supply stores) and an insulated lunch box. Freezer gel packs will keep foods cold until lunchtime, but are not recommended for all-day storage. Any perishable food (i.e. meat, poultry, or egg sandwiches) not eaten at lunch should be discarded.
If your child chooses a brown paper bag to carry lunch, it's especially important to include a cold source. A freezer gel pack or a frozen sandwich works well. Because brown paper bags tend to become soggy or leak as cold foods thaw, be sure to use an extra paper bag to create a double layer. Double-bagging will also help insulate the food.
Tell your child to use the refrigerator at school, if one is available. If not, make sure they keep their lunch out of direct sunlight and away from radiators, baseboards and other heat sources found in the classroom.
Every parent should have a supply of staple foods for easy packing. These include fresh fruits and vegetables, crackers, peanut butter sandwiches, packaged pudding and canned fruits or meats.
Freeze single-sized juice packs overnight and place the frozen drink in your child's lunch. The juice will thaw by lunchtime, but it will still be cold. The frozen drink will also keep the rest of the lunch cold.
If you make sandwiches the night before, keep them in the refrigerator until packing up to go in the morning.
After all this, if a can of soda remains your child's lunch of choice, sing a few bars of the Rolling Stones' tune "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Yes, this will irritate the little nipper. But at least he'll be irritated and healthy.
For more information, visit the federal government food safety website at www.foodsafety.gov.