School lunches have gotten a bad rap for a long time. Many people assume that meals provided in school are ultra-processed, high in sugar and fat, and lack nutrients. But the reality is, school lunches are subject to national regulations.
“Meals are required to include certain amounts of specific food groups to ensure children get the nutrients they need through a variety of foods,” explains Alyssa Katz, MS, RD, a community registered dietitian at Henry Ford Health.
The Evolution Of School Lunch
You might remember school lunch as rubbery chicken nuggets and greasy cheese bread. Fortunately, nutrition in school cafeterias has come a long way over the past decade. “Research shows that kids who are in the school lunch program consume more whole grains, milk, fruit and vegetables during mealtimes and have better diet quality than those who do not participate or bring in their own lunch,” Katz says.
In 2010, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which established nutrition standards for school meals. The standards aim to ensure kids in grades K through 12 get the same healthy foods at school that parents encourage at home, including:
- Offering both fruits and vegetables daily
- Offering only fat-free and low-fat milk options
- Ensuring that 80% of the grains offered come from whole grains (the Healthy Guidelines for Americans recommend that 50% of grains come from whole grains, so this is above the national recommendation)
- Limiting fat to no more than 30% of total calories and no more than 10% from saturated fat
- Restricting the number of calories served based on children’s ages to ensure proper portion size
Maximizing The Nutrient Punch In School Lunch
Meal planning for schools is complicated. Menus have to appeal to a range of tastes and restrictions and eliminate common allergens. And with tight budgets, it’s important for schools to provide low-cost meals that don’t require too much preparation.
“Food services within schools offer a range of programs that can help encourage healthier eating habits,” Katz says. Parents can support that programming and ensure their children get needed nutrients by:
- Dining in. Some schools allow parents to dine with their children to get a sense of what is provided during school lunch. “This is a great opportunity to see firsthand which foods are being offered and help your child make the healthiest choices,” Katz says.
- Reading the menus. Most schools provide lunch and breakfast menus online. Look at them with your children to understand what they do and don’t like. On days when your kids aren’t excited by the menu items, send them to school with extra whole fruits or veggie sticks.
- Taking advantage of school programming. It’s not uncommon for school food services to offer taste tests for kids. If those options are available at your children’s school, encourage them to participate.
- Eating fruits and vegetables at home. It’s no secret that kids model their habits based on their parents. If you’re eating lots of fruits and vegetables at home, your children are likely to follow suit.
Unfortunately, the school-age palate can be finicky. The more healthful foods young kids are exposed to, the better the odds they’ll get a diverse mix of nutrients. Participating in the School Lunch Program is one way to broaden kids’ food horizons. “After all, if kids are eating with their peers, they’re more likely to try foods their friends are eating,” Katz says.
Looking for more nutrition advice and want to make an appointment with a registered dietitian? Call 1-855-434-5483 or visit Nutrition Services on henryford.com.
Alyssa Katz is a community dietitian with Henry Ford’s Generation with Promise team.