It’s 6:45 in the morning and you are standing in the kitchen, barely awake, but still trying to figure out what to stuff into your child’s lunch box. You’ve reached your decision and begin to make the most amazing tuna sandwich, when your lovely child walks in and tells you that they hate tuna but that it is okay – they trade the sandwich for cookies with their friends. Not exactly music to your ears!

In my house we have tried the ‘pack-it-the-evening-before’ method, we have sent yesterday’s main dish as today’s lunch, and even purchased lunch from the school cafeteria. Over the last few years we have done less and less packing and more and more purchasing. This is not a bad thing but, there is always the question of how to ensure that my child eats healthy choices at school when I am not there to supervise.

The first line of defense against poor food choices in the school cafeteria is the home. When parents are communicating their wishes and modeling healthy behaviors it is easier for the children to decide what to eat. Most school’s post their menus online for families to see before they order. Take the time to talk to your child about what is on offer and what your expectations are. It might be worth the time and effort to drop by school for a visit at lunch time, grab a tray and have a meal. This way you can see exactly what is on offer in your school cafeteria, how it tastes and what is on your child’s tray. Depending on your child’s age the choices may differ and the set lunch offered for younger students tends to look much healthier than the ala carte choices many older students make. It is impossible for a school to monitor what each individual child eats, so it is up to parents to ask kids about what they had for lunch. If you are unhappy with the choices offered to students, let your school know – but please remember that they are catering for upwards of 1000 people from many different nationalities.

Recently, there has been much hype on parenting websites about the fact that school lunches tend to be healthier than what parents are packing for their children. Children are more likely to get fresh fruits and vegetables at school and less likely to get deserts. Here are some quick tips for what to pack when you pack a lunch from home. A balanced packed lunch should contain starchy foods such as bread, rice, potatoes, and pasta. Remember to use whole grains whenever possible. There should be a source of protein which could be meat, fish, eggs, or beans (legumes). Cheese and yoghurt are great sources of dairy but try to avoid sugar-loaded kids’ yoghurts. Finally, do not forget fruits and vegetables. Fruits are easy to pack and vegetables the hardest to include. Perhaps try including a dip or dressing of some kind with the vegetables to make them more attractive to kids.

Each family must choose for themselves whether to pack or purchase their child’s lunch. The only important thing to remember when making this decision is to ensure that your child gets the right food to keep their mind and body fueled for the rest of the school day.

Katie Rigney-Zimmermann holds an MBA in International Business and a Masters in Secondary Education. She is the Director of Admissions and Marketing at Saigon South International School. Her five children have attended international schools in three countries.