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: