Healthy School Lunches – Making them better

By James P Lee, MD, FAAP

The much maligned school lunch has gotten a lot of attention in the past few years. New dietary guidelines established in 2012 to provide healthier lunches has brought more focus to the basics of what constitutes a healthy lunch. These improved guidelines include reduced fat and sodium content of foods served with an increase of fruits and vegetables, discouraging sugar based drinks and promoting healthier grain options. It’s been a work in progress. The American diet is accustomed to fattier, sweeter foods and acceptance of these changes will take time. Furthermore, the quality of lunches brought from home is lagging behind these new guidelines too, with research showing that homemade lunches have more calories and salt with fewer fruits and vegetables compared to school standards and also contain more sweetened beverages, snacks and desserts. Ironically, other studies have also shown that homemade lunches are more expensive that those provided at school.

So what is a healthy school lunch? Let’s go through it.

Calories:

Elementary (ages 5-10) = 550-650

Middle School (ages 11-13) = 600-700

High School (ages 14-18) = 750-850

Make up:

  1. ½ of meal fruit and vegetables – whole or sliced fresh fruit and vegetables, dried fruits, applesauce, veggies with dip.
  2. ¼ of meal whole grains – whole wheat pasta, brown rice, whole grain breads, oatmeal.
  3. ¼ of meal protein – lean meats and poultry, beans and peas, nuts and tofu, tuna fish.

Other hints: avoid chips or pre-packaged snacks and lunches. They are higher in fat, calories, salt and are not nutritionally better.

Also, encourage shopping with your child for food (for all meals). It is educational, allows “buy in” and helps kids learn how to make healthy choices.

And, why we are on the subject, children eat better when they have time to eat! Studies show that students who have less than 20 minutes to eat lunch tend to make poorer choices and eat less than those who get at least 25 minutes for lunch.

Also, how the food is presented – both visually and in what order – affected student choice. The make-up of the serving line also influences choice. Not surprisingly, supermarkets have figured this out too!

We spend so much time professionally and as families worrying (and spending money) trying to maximize our students abilities and success that can be easily influenced by some very simple strategies: a good night’s sleep and a regular, healthy breakfast and lunch have been proven to be vital to sustaining student achievement. All it takes is some planning and commitment (and reinforcement from your friendly pediatrician!)