Meal planning for schools is a complicated process. Menus have to allow for a wide range of tastes and restrictions. Budgets are limited. Foods that are available at lowest cost and require the least preparation are often high in fat, sugar, and salt.
According to the School Meals Initiative for Healthy Children set up in 1996, school lunch menus backed by federal subsidies must conform to the current guidelines for health. When it comes to fat, this means that meals may contain no more than 30% of total calories from fat and no more than 10% from saturated fat.
National School Lunch Program: School Requirements for Menu Improvement
It also means that schools taking part in the National School Lunch Program have been required to take the following practical steps to improve menus:
Adding more fruits, vegetables, and grains to menus
Balancing menus by using foods from each of the 5 groups
Reducing overall fat content by serving more vegetarian main courses, less beef and pork, and fewer fried foods
Varying menus by serving more ethnic dishes, such as pasta and tacos
To back up efforts at the lunchroom level, the US Department of Agriculture set up Team Nutrition, a program to improve children’s eating habits and raise their awareness about the links between food and health. Team Nutrition’s goal is to improve children’s lifelong eating and physical activity habits by using the principles of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. This plan involves schools, parents, and the community in efforts to continuously improve school meals, and to promote the health and education of 50 million schoolchildren in more than 96,000 schools nationwide.
How to Get Involved & Make Your Child’s School Healthier
There’s also a push at the state and local levels to help children eat better. In many communities, children at grade-school level are learning not only how to cook food but also how to grow a variety of produce. Courses combine food production and preparation with valuable lessons about history, economics, social science, and math.
If you’re not satisfied with the choices available in your child’s school cafeteria, get involved in your school’s parent-teacher organization and brainstorm some healthful alternatives, as parents and teachers all over the country are doing.
Even if you haven’t the time or resources to revamp the school cafeteria, you may be able to see that the salad bar offers a good selection of raw vegetables and low-fat dressings. Vending machine choices can also be modified to eliminate high-fat and empty-calorie munchies and provide healthy snacks that include more fresh fruit and low-fat dairy products, as well as water and 100% fruit juice instead of sodas.
Try to get your child’s school to stock healthy choices in the vending machines. Although school administrators fear that they will lose money if they make these changes, schools that have provided healthier options have not lost money or have seen their revenue increase.