Are School Lunches Getting Healthier?

Warning: School lunch is my hot-button issue. Politics or sports don’t nearly drive me as crazy as hearing my 9-year-old daughter, Katie, announce what her school cafeteria served. Yesterday, for instance, she told me about a pretzel-wrapped hot dog, corn, “peaches in slimy sauce,” and cake. Grrr.

A couple of months ago, my hopes were raised when I heard that the USDA was toughening up the rules for school lunch. In September, every public school that has some students from low-income families on the free lunch program is required to follow these new guidelines – that’s most public and charter schools in the country, including Katie’s. The USDA hailed these changes as “historic improvements.” I, however, was not terribly impressed. While I was happy to see that the rules stipulate more whole grains at lunchtime and better milk choices, canned fruit with syrup – which seems to be the fruit du jour at Katie’s school — and super-high levels of sodium are still permitted. Elementary school lunches currently contain 1,377 milligrams of sodium – almost as much as kids should have for the entire day. The USDA’s goal is to lower that to 1,230 mg by the 2014/2015 school year and then drop it to 935 mg by 2017. Katie will be in college before it becomes a more reasonable 635 mg in 2022.

I asked Elisa Zied – registered dietitian, author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips and mom of two boys – if she was happy about new lunch menus. Her response: “They’re not perfect, but they’re a step in the right direction.” And, of course, she’s right about that. Babies born this year will undoubtedly have healthier school lunches when they’re in the fourth grade than my daughter does now.

But where does that leave me? Packing a lunch every day is a pain, but I’ve learned over the years to plan dinnertime leftovers, like pasta salad or roasted chicken, that could easily work for the lunchbox the next day. It’s tempting to toss in packaged crackers or pretzels. But more often than not, I stick with no-fuss fruit, like bananas and easy-to-peel clementines. What do you pack for your hungry students?

About the Author

Karen Cicero is a health and nutrition writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience. She has written health articles for such national publications as Prevention, SHAPE, Health, Fitness, SELF and Cooking Light. She has also edited the dental column for Heart & Soul magazine and is the co-author of Kitchen Counter Cures.


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