Photo: Yumbox

School lunch standards are changing, but yours don’t have to.

Jamie Vespa MS, RD
May 02, 2017

On Monday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a rollback of school lunch standards initiated by the former first lady Michelle Obama. As part of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, schools have been required to reduce calories, fat, and sodium in their cafeterias and increase offerings of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and nonfat milk to students receiving federally subsidized meals.

The USDA will now allow states to grant exemptions regarding whole grain standards for the 2017-2018 school year if they experience difficulty meeting the requirements, while sodium mandates will be delayed. Schools will also be able to offer 1 percent flavored milk instead of nonfat.

The top priorities of this program were to promote healthy eating and combat childhood obesity – a mission the former first lady was devotedly passionate about. Moving forward, how can we continue to promote these healthy habits in our children and empower them to make nutritious options when refined grains and sodium-bomb snacks are abound?

Explore whole grains at home

Take time to talk to kids about the grains they eat at home. Help them identify which grains are whole grains, and explain why they are important. Note: using language that relates to them growing up strong and healthy will likely make more of an impact than the cardiovascular benefits. It may help to introduce new varieties of whole grains in familiar meal and snack selections such as sandwiches, crackers, and popcorn.

Photo: Hector Manuel Sanchez

Make mornings count

Considering most families lack adequate fiber on a daily basis, breakfast is a great opportunity to sneak it in. Look to whole grain breads, cereals, pancakes, or oats to offer quality nutrition with kid-friendly appeal. Choose cereals that offer at least 5g fiber, 5g protein, and less than 10g sugar for the biggest nutritional punch. It may also help to prepare a double batch of multigrain pancakes on the weekend and serve leftovers for weekday breakfasts on the fly.

Include fruits or vegetables at all snack times  

Snacks can be one of easiest meal occasions to fill nutritional gaps. Encourage either one serving of fruit or vegetables with all snacks (whether enjoyed at home or at school) to slip in extra fiber and micronutrients that count. If you find this difficult, try serving raw carrots or snap peas with a healthy dip, such as hummus, black bean dip, or guacamole to encourage them to eat more vegetables. Preparing fruit and vegetable-based smoothies can also be nutritious alternative to eating them whole. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that children ages 3 to 5 nearly doubled their consumption of vegetables on days when they were served blended vegetables instead of whole vegetables. Baked or dried fruit may also offer more snack appeal, as a chewy or crunchy texture can make fruit more appealing.

Photo: Greg Dupree

Offer whole milk in place of 1% flavored

Dairy is a critical food group for children and adolescents, as it offers rich amounts of bone-building calcium and Vitamin D. The USDA recommends two-and-a-half cups per day for kids starting at 4 years old. Calcium requirements increase as kids get older, so from 9 years on, 3 cups of milk per day are recommended. Whole milk and full-fat yogurts are creamier and more satisfying than their nonfat counterparts, while only containing natural milk sugars. Flavored milks can contain double the sugar (half of which is added sugar) while also being less satiating. If the option to chose between whole milk or 1% chocolate should arise, encourage kids to go for whole.

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