The Evolution of School Lunches

It's not the mystery meatloaf you remember. Today's lunches follow strict guidelines.

We all want to raise successful kids, and parents know that education is a key piece to that puzzle. But how much does nutrition matter?

According to Kristen Hennessey, the director of nutrition services and procurement for Plymouth-Canton Community Schools, and Lori Adkins, a child nutrition consultant at Oakland Schools, nutrition is the foundation upon which your child’s education rests.

“The research overwhelmingly shows that a well-fed child is a child ready to learn,” says Hennessey, adding that it has become a part of the district’s planning at Plymouth-Canton schools. “If a child eats well, they will perform better in the classroom.”

What constitutes eating well, though? “Nutritionally balanced meals,” says Adkins.

School lunches must include a third of the balanced daily nutrition that kids need, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and low-fat milk in age-appropriate portion sizes.

“School lunch menus follow USDA nutritional guidelines and meal patterns for both breakfast and lunch. Meal patterns outline specific portion sizes and types of food for each grade level and are used by school menu planners to create menus that meet both student preferences and federal guidelines,” Adkins explains.

And that’s not all. “There are also specific USDA dietary guidelines that school lunches must meet for calories, saturated fat and sodium on a weekly basis for each grade level group,” she adds.

Planning the menus gets more complex as kids get older and are able to pick and choose their foods. “There are daily and weekly targets our lunches have to meet. We need a certain amount of grains, proteins, fruits and vegetables within the week,” says Hennessey.

With elementary school students, it’s a little easier because they generally have one line to choose from. High schoolers, however, have a variety of lunch stations, which makes things more complicated.

“It’s a lot like putting a puzzle together. We have to make sure that if a kid picks from one station on Monday and another on Tuesday, they are still hitting the nutritional goals,” she says.

Knowing how much work goes into the planning, it may be easy to assume that convenience trumps health and the quality of food being served. That’s not the case, Hennessey says.

“Yes, sometimes we do serve pizza. But the fact is kids like pizza, and our pizza is a whole grain crust, reduced sodium cheese and low sugar sauce. It isn’t your average pizza.”

Adkins also notes “Although there are stringent standards that schools must follow, the meals must still be appealing with food that kids will actually eat. The best school meals are those that are delicious, convenient and affordable for kids and families.”

For parents opting to pack lunches for their kids, Hennessey and Adkins have some tips. “Keep food safety in mind,” says Adkins, “If you’re packing fruits, vegetables, yogurt, cheese or lunchmeat, be sure to include an ice pack to keep it chilled. Kids can also buy cold milk from the cafeteria at school.”

Hennessey reminds parents that kids do not have a lot of time to eat their lunches. “The reality is, kids don’t get enough time, and they will use a portion of it to socialize. Whatever you pack, try to make it convenient,” she suggests. “If you pack an orange, peel it first. And, of course, they will eat what they like, so try to include your kids in the decision of what you pack for them.”

It can be challenging to find convenient, easy-to-eat foods for lunch, but be wary of sugar. “In the afternoon, that sugar will wear off and kids will crash. Fruits, vegetables, and proteins will keep them energized throughout the day,” says Hennessey. Milk and dairy products are a great source of both protein and carbohydrates, which can keep kids energized without the crash that comes with sugary snacks and beverages.

Today’s school cafeterias are much more transparent, Hennessey says, so parents should ask any questions they might have about what’s on the menu. “In our district, we have an app that allows students and parents to get the nutrition facts of the food being served. Technology has helped so much in this way. It’s not just a scoop of mystery meat from the lunch lady anymore,” she says. “You can see exactly what you’re being served, and it’s in a regulated portion size.”

Adkins adds, “Nowadays, school lunches are healthy, convenient and great nutritional bang for your buck.”

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