Chef Eric Stein, MS RD CCE

Wellness Chef | Registered Dietitian
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School Lunch Is Becoming More Nutritious

Posted: February 8, 2012 7:40 PM

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Improving child nutrition has been the focal point of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA). The past few weeks have seen great strides, particularly by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in reference to meals provided to kids at school. Changes made by the USDA, the first of their kind in more than 15 years, make reforms to the national school lunch and breakfast programs by improving critical nutrition and hunger safety issues for millions of children.

I found it very comical to read New York Times writer, Mark Bittman, refer to school lunches as "inferior versions of bad fast food", but with these new changes, school foods is moving in a direction towards creating healthy eating habits that can last a lifetime.

One of the most logical shifts towards healthier eating, is encouraging moving meat away from the center of the plate. Previous guidelines required meat or "meat alternatives", think bacon and sausage, to be offered for breakfast. Doing away with this helps teach kids that nutritious meals don't necessarily center on animal proteins.

Significant changes to the "New School Food Rules" include:

-Doubling the amount of fruits and vegetables offered for school lunch, increasing colorful varieties served as well

-Providing more legume and whole grain options (All grains provided under this program must be whole grain-rich by start of the school year in 2014)

-Offering only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties (flavored must be fat free)

-Creating calorie guidelines based on the age to ensure proper portion size and reduce the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium

Time honored school lunch items like French fries and pizza will not disappear, though they will definitely not be as prevalent on the menu. When pizza is offered, it will appear with less sodium, more whole grains, and a wider selection of toppings, including less highly processed meats, and more fruits and vegetables.

While these changes are in relation to subsidized meals, these standards are also expanding to other foods sold in schools including "a la carte" foods on the lunch line and snacks in vending machines. These guidelines are designed to ensure kids are eating better a majority of the time. The next step is helping chefs follow suit by providing nutritious choices on their kids menus as well.

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