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Can We Talk About School Lunches?

Now that the kiddos are back in school, we need to think about the quality of their lunches. After all, we want to provide them with the best nutrition possible so they can perform at their best and build great eating habits during these formative years. School lunches are an important part of a child’s daily routine – they not only provide them with the nourishment they need to grow and develop, but can also impact their concentration levels and performance at school. A healthy, balanced meal is essential for fueling children through their busy days!

If you’re watching your diet, it is very likely that you’re also concerned about your children’s daily diet. Sadly, statistics show that the average child in America is not eating as they should. The numbers are alarming: approximately 21-24% of American children are overweight, and another 16-18% are obese.

What are our children (or grandchildren) eating on a daily basis and how does it contribute to the current childhood obesity problem?

Today, school lunches are much healthier than they were a decade ago, for instance. Still, we can’t help but notice that school meals often fail to meet the US dietary requirements.

In fact, primary and secondary educational institutions lack the budget to offer their students nutritious and balanced food. As a result, many children in the US continue to get unhealthy meals at school. Let’s take a look at some of the aspects of school lunch programs that require significant improvement.

Poor Quality and Poor Variety

As a rule, school lunch programs must include a wide range of healthy food components. However, few US students get quality meals that feature a healthy selection of ingredients. It’s very easy to cherry-pick lunch items, swap with others, and steer clear of the good stuff.

For example, the NSLP recommends high-school students to have two cups of fruit and vegetables for lunch. Unfortunately, most lunches do not meet this requirement. In fact, school menus rarely feature fresh fruit and non-starchy veggies. Instead, they consist of poor-quality food like canned corn and green beans, margarine, vegetable oil, and starchy white bread.

Sodium Overload

In our opinion, the worst part about school meals is the high percentage of sodium they contain. For years now, the US government has been trying to limit high-sodium foods in school cafeterias. This info sheet by the USDA has the recommended limits for each age group. Still, so far, the efforts have been in vain because preparation techniques vary from school to school and across different lunch staff involved in meal preparation. In fact, most children are still consuming more sodium than recommended in a regular day. Fortunately, the rules for the 2023-24 school year require a 10% reduction in sodium levels, which might make school lunch the healthiest meal they eat all day.

Too Much Saturated Fat

While the National School Lunch Program sets guidelines for fats, salt, and sugar, many schools allow vending machines and give kids the ability to pick and choose what items they want to eat on the daily menu. According to research, the reality is that only 44% of schools have menus that fit into the healthy calorie range.

Depending on what items a child chooses from the lunch line, lunches can often have too many calories, with one-third of the nutritional value of school food coming from fat. School lunches are often higher in saturated fat than we realize. Just because a school lunch is provided doesn’t mean it’s automatically healthy. It’s important to be aware of the saturated fat content in school lunches and make sure our kids are getting the nutrition they need.

Sadly, we’ve also found that children who eat an unhealthy amount processed meat (burgers, sausages, lunchmeat, etc) are taking in too much saturated fat — a type of fat that’s linked to heart disease.

In Conclusion

For the most part, school lunches are getting healthier, and the government as well as school boards are focusing more on nutritional values. However, students are often choosing the wrong foods, skipping the healthier options, and indulging in snacks and drinks that are high in sugar, calories, saturated fats and sodium. For this reason, some parents have decided to simply pack daily lunches, or to have a discussion with their kids about eating healthy and making good choices. In reality, the average child in America continues to consume too much sodium, fat, carbs, and sugar and are not getting enough fresh fruit and vegetables.

Clearly, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. On the bright side, though, the last ten years prove that school meal programs can indeed be transformed for the better. As well, many parents are becoming more conscientious about their child’s eating habits and are leading by example. One way to do this is to make sure your pantry is full of healthy snacks like these that you and the kids can grab-and-go without worry.

Educating children at home on smart food choices, and modeling them ourselves, is the surest way to help them avoid the obesity trap and all the health complications that inevitably burden many adults who struggle with their weight.

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