During the school year, many children get the majority of their daily nutrition away from home through school breakfast and lunch. It is more important than ever that school lunches are healthy, nutritional powerhouses to help fuel growing bodies and learning minds. So how do they stack up, and how can you make sure your kid’s lunch is as good as it can be?

In 2012, important changes were made in the federal school lunch program. Over 32 million schoolchildren get at least half of their daily caloric intake from school lunch, potentially more than that if they are in federally-funded aftercare programs, too. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) aimed to eliminate saturated fats, sodium, and excess sugar from school lunches, replacing them with whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. According to researchers at Harvard’s School for Public Health, the results have been mixed. They note that:

  • Fruit selection increased 23% but consumption remained unchanged
  • Vegetable selection remained the same, but consumption increased by 16.2%
  • Entrée selection remained the same

Total fruit consumption (in pounds) went up because more students selected fruit.

Food waste at schools continues to be an issue, even if it is not as high as anecdotal reports indicated. Still, students throw away between 60-75% of vegetables and 40% of fruits on their trays. Some argue this is due to the larger portion sizes and the fact that students are required to select a fruit or a vegetable (which they may not eat).

Even with the food waste indicated by Harvard’s study, other studies point out that low-income students eat significantly more fruits and vegetables when they are in school. Meghan Longacre, PhD, and Madeline Dalton, PhD, of Dartmouth Hitchcock’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center and the Hood Center for Children and Families surveyed nearly 1,900 middle school students and parents in New Hampshire and Vermont. Students were asked to recall how many servings of fruits and vegetables they ate in the previous seven days during the school year and then again in the summer. The researchers found that even though other studies have shown that low-income students consume fewer fruits and vegetables than their middle- and high-income peers, school breakfast and lunches offered them an important nutritional boost during the school year.

Longacre had this to say about the study findings:

“Schools clearly have a role in providing healthy foods to children. Our data suggest that the most vulnerable students are benefiting the most from school food.”

Even with healthier school lunches increasing fruit and vegetable consumption in students at all income levels, there is still a long way to go to meet the recommended daily allowances for school-aged children. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just released a report that found that because of the new dietary guidelines governing the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), kids between the ages of 2 and 18 are now consuming more whole fruits and vegetables and drinking less juice.

Sandy Procter, assistant professor of human nutrition and coordinator of the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program in Kansas State University’s College of Human Ecology, had this to say about the change:

“This is a really positive sign for that age group because that’s where we were seeing a lot of concern with overconsumption of fruit juice…even though 100 percent fruit juice is very nutritious, it is very high in calories. When it is over-served to young children, it can cause diarrhea and contribute to obesity.”

Even with higher whole fruit consumption, there are still large gaps between the amount of fruits and vegetables consumed and the amount recommended. This gap can be bridged with healthy school lunches. During the school year, children spend more time in school every week than they do awake at home. In order to meet minimum serving guidelines of five fruits and vegetable a day, it is important that fruits and vegetables play a starring role in a healthy school lunch.

If you pack your child’s lunch for health reasons or to control a chronic pain condition, here are some easy tips to help them meet their daily allowance for fruits and vegetables:

  • Know what a serving size is: Look for graphics and information on what a serving size actually is and include at least two servings of fruit and/or vegetables in your child’s lunch.
  • Capitalize on what they like: If your child loves pasta salad, fill it with veggies. A fruit salad or a fresh green salad can equal two serving sizes, depending on the age of the child. If they love sandwiches, add more veggies and less meat or cheese.
  • Incorporate fruit as a snack or for breakfast: A handful of dried fruit in cereal or an all-fruit smoothie after school are great ways to up the fruits and veggies.
  • Consider presentation: Your kid doesn’t like celery? Consider ants on a log. Not a fruit fan or would rather reach for candy? How about some fruit flowers? We eat first with our eyes, so tempt kids with something interesting.
  • Let them choose: As your child gets older, give them healthy school lunch options and let them choose which they would like that day.
  • Try seasonal fruits and vegetables: Seasonal produce grown locally is going to be the most flavorful, nutritious choice. Try to purchase those fruits and vegetables that are locally available as often as possible.

If your child eats school lunch, take a look at the menu and drop in for lunch every now and then. If the school lunches don’t match what’s on the published menu or look like they could use a little boost in nutrition, ask your school district to provide you more information on their school lunch (or school lunch providers) and go from there. You may need to take some time to document what is good and what needs improvement, but hopefully not as long as Sarah Wu, a.k.a. Mrs. Q. Sarah documented a year’s worth of school lunches at her son’s school (where she was also a teacher) and found them lacking. Her advocacy resulted in positive changes that benefited the entire school. It may take some doing, but it is work that is worth it.

How are the lunches at your child’s school? If you pack lunch for your kids, what tips would you add?

Image by D.C. Central Kitchen via Flickr


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