Earlier this year, First Lady Michelle Obama announced the results of the first major nutritional overhaul of school meals in more than 15 years. The new guidelines, which come into effect with the start of the school year next Tuesday, mean that school meals will come with less sodium, more whole grains and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables.
The new standards, established under the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, ensure that students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week. They substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods and low-fat or fat-free milk, limit calories based on the age of children being served to ensure proper portion size and focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fat and sodium.
Duane Sorenson, director of dining services for Chartwells School Dining Services, which manages the Blaine County School District’s food service program, said the guidelines have prompted a complete overhaul of the lunch program.
“We have reorganized what we serve to meet the new standards.” Sorenson said. “The whole country is now moving toward a food-based system. Previously, we were nutrient-based.”
Lunches this year will now offer five food choices: fruits, vegetables, protein, whole grains and milk. The student can select three options from the five, but at least one must be a fruit or vegetable.
The School District has already been progressive in addressing health concerns surrounding school lunches, including implementing salad bars in all the schools, developing its own white whole-wheat pizza crust, only serving food containing zero grams of trans fats per serving and incorporating local food into the lunch menus.
“We use local suppliers where possible—Bigwood Bread makes all our bread and we try to source our produce locally or regionally,” Sorenson said.
While many parents aim to meet similar nutritional goals at home, as any working parent knows, it can be hard to consistently fit a child’s lunch neatly into the new food plate (which replaced the pyramid in 2011, another Michelle Obama-backed initiative). Ensuring that a home-packed lunch incorporates the correct amount of fruit, vegetable, grains, proteins and dairy presents its own challenges.
Becky McCarver, a dietician at St. Luke’s Wood River who has two small children of her own, has spent a few years tackling the lunch quandary both professionally and personally. Here she offers her five top tips for parents to keep in mind when they pack their children’s lunches.
“First, make sure that if there’s anything perishable you do have an ice pack. A lot of people don’t realize that something like a turkey sandwich or yogurt needs to stay out of the danger zone (40-140 degrees for more than four hours).
“Second, make sure there are four or five things in the lunch so your child has choices, all of which you are happy with. Pick things that you know they’ll like and that you’ll feel good about.
“Third and fourth, make sure you have a fruit and or a vegetable and some protein to help fill them up
“Lastly, ensure that there are fluids which won’t fill them up, so you don’t waste calories. Water is best—if you do juice choose 100 percent juice. You can do milk but you have to be careful about the perishability.”
For the main dish in your child’s lunch McCarver suggests soup, sandwiches on whole grain bread and quesadillas.
“I sneak in beans where I can,” she said. “You can also add some avocado as a good healthy fat.”
Be sure to include the child’s mid-morning snack in your healthy mindset.
“I try and include something with carbohydrate for energy and protein to help fill them up,” she said. “Cheese and whole-grain crackers, peanut butter and fruit, and yogurt are all good choices.”
She also suggested seeking out some of the better snack bars available, which combine convenience and nutrition.
“Look for the less-processed ones. I look for no partially hydrogenated oils, no high-fructose corn syrup and the least amount of ingredients. A granola bar that doesn’t have good ingredients is similar to a candy bar.”
Overall, McCarver advises against buying pre-packaged prepared foods.
“The sodium content can be so high. Even though you’re ‘packing’ the lunch, you should still think of it as a healthy meal you’re providing for your child. It doesn’t have to be ‘convenient.’ It can be leftovers from last night packed in environmentally friendly containers, which also helps teach your child about the importance of reusing and recycling.”
With the nationwide push for healthier food for children has come a secondary wave of clever marketing, pushing parents toward processed pre-packaged food that purport to be both healthy and convenient. In general, McCarver advises avoiding those.
“If it’s a fruit or veg and it’s processed, packaged and/or expensive, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” she said. “If a fruit or vegetable drink is more expensive than the actual vegetable, that really doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
Recognizing that all parents struggle to come up with new, healthy ways to feed their children, McCarver shared a sample menu from her children’s lunchbox last week.
“We had quesadillas with cheese and black beans, ranch to dip carrots and snap peas, a bar with a bit of chocolate, water and some dried fruit,” she said.
She said the importance of a child’s nutrition can never be understated.
“They have to be well fed to be successful,” McCarver said. “Be careful with foods that taste good but don’t offer nutrition to support the good behavior and learning your child needs to be successful at school. Generally, I recommend avoiding what I call party food—chips, soda, Gatorade, processed food. Those are not bad every once in a while, but not on a regular basis. A school lunch is not a special occasion. It should represent the same values you apply to your child’s food at home.”
10 kid-friendly vegetable and fruit tips
Smoothie creations: Blend fat-free or low-fat yogurt or milk with fruit pieces and crushed ice. Use fresh, frozen, canned and even overripe fruits. Try bananas, berries, peaches and/or pineapple.
Delicious dippers: Kids love to dip their foods. Whip up a quick dip for veggies with yogurt and seasonings such as herbs or garlic. Serve with raw vegetables like broccoli, carrots or cauliflower. Fruit chunks go great with a yogurt and cinnamon or vanilla dip.
Caterpillar kabobs: Assemble chunks of melon, apple, orange and pear on skewers for a fruity kabob. For a raw veggie version, use vegetables like zucchini, cucumber, squash, sweet peppers or tomatoes.
Personalized pizzas: Set up a pizza-making station in the kitchen. Use whole-wheat English muffins, bagels or pita bread as the crust. Have tomato sauce, low-fat cheese and cut-up vegetables or fruits for toppings. Let kids choose their own favorites. Then pop the pizzas into the oven to warm.
Fruity peanut butterfly: Start with carrot sticks or celery for the body. Attach wings made of thinly sliced apples with peanut butter and decorate with halved grapes or dried fruit.
Frosty fruits: Frozen treats are bound to be popular in the warm months. Just put fresh fruits such as melon chunks in the freezer (rinse first). Make “popsicles” by inserting sticks into peeled bananas and freezing.
Bugs on a log: Use celery, cucumber or carrot sticks as the log and add peanut butter. Top with dried fruit such as raisins, cranberries or cherries, depending on what bugs you want!
Homemade trail mix: Skip the pre-made trail mix and make your own. Use your favorite nuts and dried fruits, such as unsalted peanuts, cashews, walnuts or sunflower seeds mixed with dried apples, pineapple, cherries, apricots or raisins. Add whole-grain cereals to the mix, too.
Potato person: Decorate half a baked potato. Use sliced cherry tomatoes, peas and low-fat cheese on the potato to make a funny face.
Put kids in charge: Ask your child to name new veggie or fruit creations. Let them arrange raw veggies or fruits into a fun shape or design.
These suggestions come from the United States Department of Agriculture. These and more can be found at www.choosemyplate.gov