True Stories from the School Cafeteria

The past couple of weeks our blogs have focused on breakfast. Today, I’m going to change it up and talk about lunch. School lunch to be more specific. A couple of weeks ago I ate school lunch with my daughter who is in kindergarten. It was the week of her birthday and she was so excited to have me come.

school lunch tray of food

At the school my kids attend, they get to choose between three entrée options, one option is always a simple sandwich. The day I visited, the other two options were a yogurt parfait or chicken tenders. As you can see in the picture, I chose the chicken tenders. Along with those I had baked beans, a roll, apple slices, broccoli salad, and milk. Another option was applesauce. Overall, I thought the food was good. It just so happens that on the day I planned to visit, my daughter begged me to take lunch from home. I don’t think it was that she didn’t like the chicken tenders as much as it seems that taking your lunch is a ‘cool’ thing to do in kindergarten as there were a number of kids who had brought their lunch.

I generally have my kids eat school lunch because:

  1. I think the school lunch provides them with a balanced meal. They don’t often choose the vegetable option but do they get the fruit, grain, protein, and dairy groups. 
  2. It allows them to try new things. They might not take new things every day but I do think they try things at school that they might not try for me at home. 
  3. The cost of the meal is reasonable for what they get, including fruits and vegetables. And for families who have limited budgets, free and reduced price meals are available.  For more information on reduced price meals, contact your child’s school.

If you have the opportunity to eat school lunch with a child, I encourage you to do so. They will enjoy having you come!

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood

Jody Gatewood is a Registered Dietitian who enjoys spending time in the kitchen baking and preparing meals for her family. She does lots of meal planning to stay organized and feed her family nutritious meals.

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It’s Not Just School Lunch. It’s Bigger Than That.

school lunch

This year my daughter started kindergarten. And honestly one of my biggest concerns was if she was going to be hungry throughout the day. Going from daycare and preschool to kindergarten is a huge adjustment for various reasons. I was particularly concerned about the change in foods available to her and how much time she would have to eat. The thought of her having fifteen minutes to eat lunch and no snacks was a little scary!

In preparation for her first day, we went shopping for a backpack. She was amazed not only at the selection of back packs, but the selection of the lunch bags. I was pretty shocked myself! Also, the books we read to prepare her for the first day of school all referenced the character bringing a lunch from home. Based on back to school shopping and children’s books, one would think that bringing a lunch from home was the norm. But in reality, approximately 80% of all students enrolled in Iowa schools participate in school meals each day. 1

With that in mind, I wanted her to try school meals for the first week. This would give her the opportunity to learn the process while everyone else did. Every day after school I ask her what she had for lunch. As the weeks have gone by she has been excited to share with me the fruits and vegetables she has chosen and even eaten at school. It’s a simple thing I do each day that often opens up a conversation about her entire day, which I was having a hard time getting her to share.  “I tried zucchini slices today and really liked them!” “Oh, and I was picked the best singer of the day!” It’s fun to see how a simple conversation about school lunch can really lead to a great conversation with a 5 year old! She has expanded the things she will eat at home and I truly believe it is connected to her positive experience with school meals.

National School Lunch Week is this week and is an observance to celebrate the benefits of healthy school lunches! School meals are doing a better job of giving your kids the healthy foods they need. Help your child check out school meals and discover what they like. Here are some tips to help your children eat healthy foods at school and at home:

    • Make time to join your child for lunch in the school cafeteria. It will provide you a first-hand experience of school meals and grow a deeper appreciation for teachers, school staff, and nutrition staff.
    • Explain to your child the options they have each day at school for lunch.
    • When your child gets home from school, ask what he/she ate for lunch.
    • Eat meals at home with your child as much as you can. Let your child see you eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low fat dairy.
    • Provide some of the new foods offered in the school cafeteria at home.  Some examples include: whole grain foods, spinach, cherry tomatoes, black beans, sweet potatoes, and zucchini slices.
    • Take your child grocery shopping with you and talk to them about where foods come from. Let your children make healthy purchases while at the store.

For more information including how to get involved at your school, school lunch myths, healthy snack ideas, visit:

Guest Blogger,


1 Iowa School Nutrition Association Annual Child Nutrition Report, March 2013

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek

Christine Hradek is a State Nutrition Specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. She coordinates ISU’s programs which help families with low income make healthy choices with limited food budgets. Christine loves helping families learn to prepare healthy foods, have fun in the kitchen and save money. In her spare time, Christine enjoys cooking, entertaining and cheering on her favorite college football teams with her family and friends.

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What School Lunches look like in other Countries

School lunches have been front page news in the U.S. this fall with lots of discussion about the healthier meals.  Have you ever wondered what kids  in other countries eat for school lunch?  BuzzFeed, a social news organization, posted What School Lunches Look Like In 20 Countries Around The World about a year ago.  The lunches are random pictures but do give an idea of what kids eat in other countries.  I feel sorry for the kids in Kenya, Honduras, Ghana, and Djibouti (a tiny country in Africa).  Their lunches are very skimpy.  The U.S. lunches shown are higher in fat and have less fruits and vegetables than many of the other countries.  However, these pictures were taken before the Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act became effective.

Never Seconds

Blog Rating System

Food-o-meter – Out of 10, a rank of how great my lunch was.

Mouthfuls – How else can we judge portion size!

Courses – Starter/main or main/dessert

Health Rating – Out of 10, can healthy foods top the food-o-meter?

Price – Currently £2 I think, it’s all done on a cashless catering card.

Pieces of hair– It won’t happen, will it?

Another website I thought was very interesting was by Martha Payne, a nine-year-old from Scotland. She started the blog Never Seconds by showing her lunch each day and rating them.

Martha calls herself ‘Veg’ in the posts (look in the archives of Never Seconds to see the posts on school lunches.)  Soon kids from other countries were sending pictures of their school lunches to Martha which she posted, causing blog readership to soar. The lack of food in lunches in some countries led Martha to raise money for Mary’s Meals, a charity that sets up school feeding projects in communities where poverty and hunger prevent children from gaining an education. Although Martha’s school has now banned her lunch pictures, she is still raising money for Mary’s Meals and blogging about her trip to  Malawi to help dedicate a new school kitchen.


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.

Attention Parents … School Lunch is changing!

For the first time in 15 years there are major changes in school lunches that will result in healthier meals for kids. What’s changing? The new school meals will contain more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables; low-fat or non-fat milk; and less sodium and fat. The meals will also be “right sized”– portion sizes will be based on a student’s age.the school day just got healthier

The most economical meal at school is the full meal, also called the reimbursable meal. A reimbursable meal includes at least three of the five components (meat or meat alternate, fluid milk, grains, fruits, and vegetables). One of the components must be a fruit or vegetable for the meal to count as a full meal and qualify the school to get some of the costs for the meal reimbursed.

High schools and an increasing number of middle and elementary schools have Offer versus Serve. This helps reduce waste by not making students take food that they don’t like or won’t eat and also provides more choices. However, students will now be required to have 1/2 cup of fruit or vegetable on their tray for it to count as a full meal. If the tray doesn’t have the fruit or vegetable component, students will be charged separately for each item on their tray (called ala carte) which is much more expensive.

Parents need to discuss lunch choices with their child so the bill for student meals isn’t a surprise….or even better go to school and eat with your kids.

Schools are doing their part by offering healthier foods. Now, we need to support the effort by encouraging children to give the healthier meals a try. Here are some new resources to help educate parents and kids on the meal changes:

What are your thoughts on these changes?

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