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Monitor kids' lunch online

Worried that too much of your child's lunch money is going to pizza and ice cream?

Both Miami-Dade and Broward school systems have online tools that not only allow parents to track what their kids are spending in the lunch line, but monitor their food choices and limit access to certain menu items.

EAT HEALTHY AT HOME

• Introduce fruits and veggies to kids at home. Don't just talk about it. Take kids to the grocery store to buy them. Serve them as snacks. "We have them at school, but if they’re not used to eating them at home, they won’t take them," said Charmaine Clarke with Broward Schools.

• When trying out a new veggie at home, serve it at least seven times to get your child used to it.



• Review school menus at home and talk about healthy choices.



• If a child won’t drink milk, try soy milk or yogurt.



• If packing a lunch, skip prepackaged kits and sugary punches and sweets. Opt for fresh.



Miami-Dade

Parents can sign up at www.paypams.com and create an account to track how much is being spent in the cafeteria and on what food items each day.

About 30 percent of parents use the online system, which Miami-Dade initiated in 2006, said Olga Botero, executive director, Food and Nutrition Department, Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

With the system, parents can create an account and pay for lunch online, using a credit card, debit card or telephone payment. Parents can choose a minimum account amount and receive email notifications when their child’s balance gets low, or even have it automatically replenished if it dips below a certain amount. There is a $1.90 fee for each online transaction, but Botero said parents can avoid the fee by paying at the school or sending in a payment with their child.

To help kids make better choices in the lunch line, parents should review school menus with their child before school, Botero said.

"It’s better for them to have a discussion before than for the child to make a spur-of-the-moment decision in the cafeteria line," she said.

Parents can use the online system anytime to look at what food items are going onto their child’s tray.

"If they’re buying ice cream, yogurt and two cookies then maybe it’s a good time to sit down with them and tell them it’s not the best idea," Botero said. "It’s a good time for a discussion about nutrition and economics."

If a parent wants to limit their child’s choices in the cafeteria line, such as no a-la-carte items or no double entrees, they should see the cafeteria manager at their child’s school, she said.

The department’s website offers such online tools, as an interactive menu planner with nutritional information, and a virtual robot that a child can "feed" to learn about nutritious choices. Botero said the website is updated with seasonal information, such as healthy choices to bring into the classroom during the holidays.

"Instead of bringing in donuts or candies, they can bring in baskets of CDs or items to raffle. It doesn’t always have to be centered around baked goods," she said.

Miami-Dade also promotes nutritious choices by sponsoring farmers markets at schools throughout the year, and through the use of healthy meal vending machines. The machines, which are stocked with fresh food prepared daily, including such menu items as yogurt parfaits and wraps stuffed with chicken salad or turkey and cheese. The vending machines are at all county public high schools, and will be introduced in about 10 middle schools this academic year, Botero said.

Broward

In November 2010, Broward debuted its online payment and tracking system in about half of its 244 schools. Now 145 schools are participating, with the remainder of schools expected to be onboard by January, said Mark Mills, manager of Financial Services for the Broward County Public Schools Department of Food and Nutrition.

"Parents are really eager to use this system to be able to view their child’s eating habits and balances online," he said.

Parents can find a list of participating schools and sign up at www.schoolpaymentsolutions.com. Once a parent is enrolled, they can see how much money is left in their child’s account and how much is being spent in the cafeteria each day. Email notifications also can be set up to alert a parent when a child’s account dips below a certain amount.

With the online system, parents can track what food items the child is buying and pay balances online with a credit or debit card. There is a $2.50 fee per transaction, but a parent can fund accounts for more than one child in a single transaction, Mills said. Payments also can be made into a child’s account for free at the school by cash or check.

If a parent wants to restrict a child from buying certain items in the cafeteria, they can call or visit the cafeteria manager at their child’s school, said Charmaine Clarke, area supervisor with the Department of Food and Nutrition.

Broward County Public Schools lists menus and a price list for standard meals, a-la-carte items and options such as double entrees on its website.

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