Ala carte options

I heard and observed many good things about the new school lunches when I ate at three different middle schools. These include:

  • students had several options for fruits and vegetables
  • students served themselves so they could put the amount they wanted on their tray
  • the food tasted good and the kids told me they liked the food
  • the food is generally healthier

What about portion size?

Calorie ranges for school lunch

(Calories can be averaged over the week.)

Grades K-5: 550 to 650 per day
Grades 6-8: 600 to 700 per day
Grades 9-12: 750 to 850 per day

The biggest concern about school lunch seems to be the portion size. The portions are based on nutrition guidelines for average children. For the first time, there are limits on the calories that can be served at meals based on students’ ages. The new guidelines require schools to serve more variety and larger portions of fruits and vegetables. On the other hand, there are limits on the amount of grains, proteins, and fat that can be served over the course of a week.

The portions served are not large enough for cross country runners or football players, but most of the kids in the lunch line are not athletes.

If your child wants more for lunch, here are some suggestions:

  • Make sure they know that they can take as much of the fruits and vegetables as they want when they go through the line if that is allowed in the district (this can vary by district). Also, ask if students are allowed to go back for more fruits and vegetables at no additional cost.
  • Ask your child if they are taking and eating what is available. You may need to work on expanding the foods your child likes by serving a variety at home and role model eating those foods.
  • Allow your child to buy additional portions from the a la cart line if it is available.
  • Have your child take snacks from home.

In Iowa, vending, a la carte, and some fundraising items have nutrition requirements based on the Healthy Kids Act of 2008.

A la Carte observations

ala carte optionsTwo of the middle schools I ate lunch at offered a la carte items. I didn’t see extra portions of the food we ate for lunch offered for sale which I thought was surprising…maybe I just missed it.

The food for sale was cans of carbonated fruit juice, 100-calorie packets of Chex mix, baked crackers, and fruit roll-ups. The kids charged these foods on their accounts just like they charged their lunches. There were no prices listed for the a la carte items and none of the kids knew how much the items cost.

My nieces both charged their Switch drink (carbonated 100% fruit juice). My brother-in-law reviewed their lunch bill and told me the Switch drink costs $1.50 for an 8-ounce can. So, instead of an economical $2.50 or less for lunch, the charge was $4.

A lower cost option would be to take extra fruits or vegetables at no charge or have the kids bring juice boxes and other snacks in their backpacks.

Healthy foods that don’t need refrigeration

  • Raisins, dried fruit, popped popcorn, dry cereals such as granola or cheerios, nuts like almonds and cashews, fruit cups, peanut butter and jelly sandwich, peanut butter on apple with raisins
  • Fresh, dried, or packaged fruits such as apricots, oranges, peaches, cherries, grapes, pears, bananas, plums, kiwi, apples, Fruit roll-ups, trail mix, oatmeal cookie

A deeper look into school lunch

Saying good things about school lunch never has been fashionable, but recent changes seem to have provoked more concern than usual. I posted a blog about changes in school lunch last month. The responses prompted me to investigate the situation further by eating lunch at threschool lunche schools — one urban, one suburban and one rural. The first step (and maybe the trickiest) was to get my nieces to let me eat with them. After some sweet talking and conferring with friends, they agreed. A colleague got me into the third school to eat with her son and his friends.

Take a look at a comparison chart of what I observed about menu choices, costs, security and supervision, time to eat, etc. along with photos of my lunches.

Children’s health is important to everyone — parents, USDA, schools, school lunch managers, parents, etc. However, we all have a different viewpoint, from USDA, which has developed program policies using the latest science based nutrition information, to parents trying to provide their child’s wants and needs on a family budget.

Much has changed in the 15 years since school lunch regulations were previously updated. Now school lunches fit the 2010 Dietary Guidelines: half the foods on the plate are fruits and vegetables, whole grains have increased, and milk is low-fat or fat free. Serving sizes are moderate. Condiments, which can be high in sodium, are limited.

lunch tray
My lunch tray … I didn’t care for creamed corn or fruit salad with coconut, so my menu options were a bit limited.

The meals I ate at school tasted pretty good and were inexpensive (I paid about $3). Each meal had a protein source, fruit, vegetable, milk and grain (except the meal that ran out of corn muffins). I thought the cheese bread with marinara sauce was great, the chili and fresh spinach tasted good, and the cantaloupe was about the best I’ve had this summer. The fish tasted fine, but because I don’t like creamed corn or fruit salad with coconut, I didn’t take either. My meal was a bit limited that day.

All the schools served 3 to 4 different fruits and vegetables, including at least one that was fresh. We served ourselves fruits and vegetables, meaning we could take more of something we liked. The kids I ate with who did not eat fruits or vegetables had less to eat. I think parents could help by serving more fruits and vegetables at home. Eating fruits and vegetables in any form is what is important – it doesn’t matter if fresh or frozen or canned; or whether organic or conventionally raised or local. New foods take a while to get used to.

One of the complaints about the new school lunch is that the portions are not large enough (more on this topic in next weeks blog). If your child tells you they are hungry, the first thing to do is make sure they are eating breakfast. This year the Iowa Department of Education and Midwest Dairy are partnering on a School Breakfast Challenge to increase daily school breakfast participation by 20%.

I enjoyed eating lunch at school with my nieces and colleague’s son. It was fun to see the kids interacting with their friends and understand more about the hustle and bustle of middle school.

Stay tuned … next week I’ll blog about ala carte options and getting enough to eat.

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