Who’s to Blame for School Lunches?

Who’s to blame for school lunches?

Recently, I’ve noticed that pictures of school lunches have been saturating my Facebook newsfeed. In fact, many people are sharing the popular Buzzfeed article that compares typical US school lunches to what school lunches look like around the world. Outraged parents have made comments about the pictures like, “Time for the US to step it up and serve food from the earth and not from a science lab.” While I completely agree with this statement, things do not get changed that easily. Additionally, I feel there is a big gap of information that many parents are unaware of when it comes to creating a school lunch menu.

  • Cost of food. Wouldn’t it be great if our schools served fish such as tilapia, mahi mahi or salmon at least once a week? What about fresh, organic eggs and avocado slices with breakfast? Unfortunately, the cost of these menu items may far surpass the school’s food budget. Typically, wealthier districts are able to offer a wider variety of foods while more rural school districts have a much lower budget to work with.
  • Cost of labor. Believe me, I wish that all the food served in our schools was fresh and wholesome—never canned or processed. However, when you purchase items that are not pre-cut or minimally pre-prepared, you now have increased labor cost from the increased time your cooks have to take to prepare these dishes from scratch.
  • Cooking space. Ever notice when you plan a meal at home, you take into consideration which different cooking methods you will utilize (oven, stove top, microwave, etc.?) Do you factor in if any of your dishes will require the same cooking method? Schools have to do the same thing! They may also be severely limited to specific cooking techniques and this would also impact the type of food they are able to serve.
  • Don’t expect kids to eat it at school when it’s not prepared at home. Many parents complain that their children are served unhealthy foods at school. One thing that pained me when I was doing my school food service rotations as a dietetic intern was the amount of food that kids waste at lunchtime. One day when I was observing the elementary students, hundreds of pre-packaged carrots and sugar-snap peapods piled up in the trash can. One of the unfortunate realities is that schools do offer healthier menu items; the kids simply do not eat them. This is why it is incredibly important to begin teaching healthy eating habits in the home. A few simple tips to get you started can include:
    • Serve lean proteins such as chicken, turkey and fish most often.
    • Educate kids that potatoes, peas and corn are starches, not vegetables and therefore, they should not be served every night.
    • Expose children to a variety of vegetables and cooking techniques such as steamed, grilled, roasted, sautéed and served raw.
    • Avoid over-serving packaged snack foods like crackers and granola bars, and choose fresh fruits, veggies and proteins as healthier alternatives.
  • Following Government Guidelines. The National School Lunch Program was designed to provide access to nutritionally-balanced meals to students. The USDA funds this program; therefore, their recommendations must follow those of the most updated USDA dietary guidelines. New recommendations of limiting sodium and saturated fat and offering more fruits, veggies and whole grains have been enforced over the past couple of years. Thousands of students receive free and reduced breakfast and lunch meals every day. In order for the schools to be reimbursed for these meals by the government, they must meet the specific standards of what counts as a meal. We have learned that high protein breakfast meals can help ward off childhood obesity. However, it is not required that a protein/meat source be served at breakfast to count as a reimbursable meal. Source: National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs

The point of my blog today was not to discredit any parent’s thoughts on what their child is being served at school; rather I wanted to help them better understand all the factors that are involved in the menu-creating process. In fact, I think it’s absurd that kids are allowed to be served sugar-sweetened beverages such as chocolate milk. However, school is not the only place that children may have access to less-healthy menu items. Remember, good eating habits start at home. Expose children early on to a variety of fruits, veggies, proteins and cooking technique and help them to appreciate natural flavors over those that are overly salty or sweetened.

For additional information on national standards in the school breakfast and lunch programs, please visit:

Cleaning Up Your Habits

Do your eating habits need a little “spring cleaning?’food_MP900443279

If I could give only one piece of  nutritional advice to everyone, it would be “Eat Clean.”According to Diane Welland, MS, RD, author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Clean”, clean eating is described as choosing foods that are natural and wholesome—particularly foods that are free of chemicals, additives and preservatives and refined, processed ingredients. In delivering my own message regarding clean eating, I tell patients to focus on the foods that Mother Nature gives us and consume less of the foods that come from a factory/plant. It’s amazing how different one feels when they cut out processed foods from their diet. The benefits that are associated with eating clean can include increased energy levels, improved sleeping habits, weight loss/weight management, improved nutritional intake and healthier bowel movements.

Eating clean is especially important for individuals desiring to lower their sodium intake. Only 5-10% of our sodium intake actually comes from using the salt shaker. The majority of one’s salt intake comes from the consumption of processed foods with some of the biggest culprits being: yeast breads, chicken nuggets, chicken-mixed dishes, pizza, pasta and pasta dishes, cold cuts, condiments, Mexican mixed dishes, sausages, hot dogs, bacon, ribs, regular cheese, pastry desserts, soups and beef and beef-mixed dishes. Eating clean helps naturally reduce one’s sodium intake since fruits and vegetables are all very low in sodium or sodium-free food choices.

Here are some tipsfood3_MP900411701 to help make clean eating a part of your lifestyle:

  Stick to the perimeter at the grocery store. This is a message that many are familiar with; however, it is not put into practice as often as it should. You won’t find the most nutritious foods in the grocery store in the canned soup aisle or next to the boxed potatoes. The most nutritious foods are the ones that often do not come in a box or package. Along the perimeter of most grocery stores, you will find the fresh produce, fresh/unseasoned meats, eggs and dairy products. Stock up with all these items first and then use the aisles of the grocery store as needed for items such as whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds.

Maximize your wholesale shopping trip. It makes me very sad when I see individuals not taking advantage of the wonderfully fresh foods offered at wholesale shopping stores such as Sam’s Club and Costco. This is where I often find the best prices on items like cut broccoli, bananas, spinach, mushrooms, chicken and butternut squash. It’s far too common that you see shopping carts stocked full of frozen pizzas, fruit roll-ups, giant muffins, hot pockets and pop tarts. Sometimes buying produce in bulk can be overwhelming; but if you plan ahead and utilize your produce in multiple ways, you’ll be amazed at how quickly your family can go through it.

Focus on “wet snacks”. This is a recommendation that I give to both children and adults. Think of snacks as a mini-meal that will provide your body with energy and nutrients. “Wet snacks” are foods with a natural moisture content to them such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, peanut butter, cheese sticks and yogurt. Choose “dry snacks” less often since these items typically are refined carbohydrate items like crackers, pretzels, chips and granola bars.

It’s plain and simple—drink water. Make this beverage your first choice and try to get at least six-eight 8-oz glasses per day. While diet soda also contains no calories, it is still composed of unnatural products such as chemicals, coloring and artificial sweeteners.Water_iStock_000021518121Large

Clean eating is a simple lifestyle approach to eating well. It’s a basic method of “choose this more often and consume this less often.” Sometimes, nutrition by the numbers isn’t always the best approach. The moment one has to count calories or carbs, they may feel trapped by the word “diet.” Yes, in order for some people to get on track with healthier eating, a more accountable method such as counting calories is needed. However, it may be better for lifelong success to focus on dietary patterns, whole foods, fresh ingredients, fat quality instead of quantity, cooking food rather than re-heating frozen foods and consuming fewer processed foods.