School Lunch Upgrades

September 07, 2011

Sending your kids off to school and hoping their school lunches have been upgraded nutritionally from last year? Well read on to find out what changes have been made

Over the past couple of years, school cafeterias have taken center stage, and just about everyone is involved - from the First Lady, celebrity chefs, and every parent who has a child eating lunch at school. In Washington, the USDA is in the final stages of issuing new nutrition standards for school meals. Programs including the White House’s Let’s Move! Campaign, the Healthier US School Challenge, and partnering with local chefs have become widespread and have built the foundation for change. In fact, the School Nutrition Association’s 2010 Back to School Trends Survey reported that in spite of rising food costs more than nine out of 10 school districts have increased offerings of whole grain products and fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition, almost three out of four are reducing or eliminating sodium in meals, and two-thirds are reducing or eliminating added sugars.

As the school year begins, nutritionists, dietitians, cooks and servers are getting ready to serve an estimated 26 million children school lunches each day. And while most students took the summer off and didn’t even think about school (or school lunch!), nearly 8,000 school nutrition professionals headed to Nashville in mid July for the School Nutrition Association's Annual National Conference to share ideas and sample healthy new foods that will be offered in school cafeterias this fall, which can be challenging to these professionals who have to prepare and serve these meals at a cost of under $1 per meal.

But as we know, just offering better nutrition is not enough. When it comes to our kids (and adults) foods have to taste great!

So what are the tasty and healthy highlights from the School Nutrition Association’s Conference?

The 180,000 square foot exhibit and sampling space included chef demonstrations that demonstrated how-to’s on innovative from scratch recipes like Whole Wheat Citrus Couscous Salad, Vegetarian Chili, and Roasted Chicken Brown Rice that could be served to hundreds of students in less than an hour. For those cafeterias without full kitchens, food companies sampled their kid-friendly prepared foods: frittatas made with egg, low-fat cheese and turkey sausage, grilled Haddock fajitas, baked sweet potato wedges, Santa-Fe style brown rice, turkey wraps made with whole grain tortillas, and whole grain macaroni made with reduced fat, reduced sodium cheese. Those are in addition to offering Greek yogurt, low-fat cheeses, and the hundreds of fresh ready-to-eat, single-serve fruits and vegetables; dried apricots, cherries, nuts, sunflower and pumpkin seeds, packaged for sale in healthy vending machines or cafeteria lines.

Carbonated soft drinks continue to be banned from many schools that are replacing those sugary beverages with reduced-sugar flavored and plain 1% and fat-free milks along with organic soy beverages, flavored waters, and fruit smoothies.

It is clear that times have changed, and this isn’t your mother’s school cafeteria lunch anymore.

The School Nutrition Association has set up a new website, Tray Talk, for parents and others who are interested in learning the facts about school lunches and sharing student success stories about how they made their school lunches healthier, to learn more.