What Does the Government’s New Dietary Advice for Americans Mean for School Lunches?

Every five years, the U.S. government revises its dietary guidelines. Each update should reflect new developments in nutrition and science, and the guidelines are meant to help all Americans stay healthy – including schoolchildren.

The newest guidelines were released on January 7, 2016, and there are some notable differences from the old guidelines. The new guidelines place a limit on daily sugar intake – it should make up no more than 10 percent of daily calories. Currently, many Americans eat over 20 teaspoons of sugar in a day, which is almost twice what the new guidelines recommend for the average diet.

Because the guidelines tend to dictate what students are served at school, there will need to be some major changes – which could take years. Many schools have resisted the change toward healthier meals in the past, partly because of the cost, and partly because they say students won’t eat healthier foods.

Why School Foods Are So Sugary

There are several reasons why the limit on sugar intake will be such a big change for school meals.

Many schools serve overly processed meals, from sugary cereals and bars to pancake lunches with syrup. Not only are processed meals more affordable than fresh foods, but they tend to last longer in storage because they’re full of preservatives.

Kids like the taste of sugar – and they’re more likely to eat (and purchase) more food if it’s delicious, cheap, and doesn’t have the fiber to make them feel full.

When schools face tight budgets, it can be hard to make the change to foods that tend to have less added sugar, like foods based on whole grains, vegetables, and fruit.

How Can Schools Enact Change?

In order to have healthy kids – who tend to do better in school – schools will need to make a change. It’s okay to start small.

Nearly half of sugars in the American diet come from beverages, from soda to juice. Simply offering things like regular milk, 100% juice, or water instead of sugar filled drinks at school can cut a lot of sugar out of kids’ diets.

Prepackaged snacks or side dishes are another source of sugar, especially when they include sauces or dips. Offering whole fruits, like apples, bananas, pears, or oranges is a better option for kids.

Dairy can be another hidden source of sugar in school meals. Instead of flavored milk and sweetened yogurt, schools could limit students to regular milk and offer plain yogurt with fresh fruit.

Healthy School Lunches During The Holidays

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Healthy School Lunches: The Key to a Lifetime of Good Eating Habits – Even During the Holidays!

Eating healthy is a skill like any other. Children need to be taught healthy eating the same way they are taught to do math or ride a bike. After daily practice, it may become a habit, but it’s necessary to continue teaching healthy eating every day.

Some schools are slowly moving towards offering healthier options to students, but hot lunch options are not kids’ only food choices in school. Parents also play an important role in students’ healthy eating decisions.

Does eating healthy in school make a difference in kids’ lives long term? What can they learn in school about healthy habits? How can we help them practice healthy eating over the holidays?

Teaching Healthy Eating in Schools

It is often said that giving a child food will feed them for one day, but teaching them to find and make their own food will feed them for a lifetime. With the growing health crisis in the United States, it is more important than ever to make sure that our children understand how to make healthy decisions and listen to their bodies so that they can continue to do so.

There are several things that children can learn in school about staying healthy.

Eat Slowly – When children are given adequate time to eat their lunches, they can eat slowly and are more likely to feel when their body is full. Rushing through a meal can lead to overeating followed by a lethargic afternoon. It is important to offer children enough time to eat lunch during the day.

Choose Healthy Options – Schools are beginning to offer healthier options to students, but it is also important to teach kids how to select the healthy options, like fruits and vegetables. Often, deciding what to eat when they aren’t hungry, or pre-ordering lunch at the beginning of the day is not only cost effective for schools, but it leads to healthier choices for kids. It also teaches kids that selecting your foods when you aren’t hungry can lead to healthier decisions.

Eat Fresh & Local – Schools that have gardens can teach kids not only how to grow and maintain their own fresh, local foods, but they can educate students about the effects of their actions on the environment, and the effects that fresh, local foods have on people when they eat.

Maintaining Healthy Choices During the Holidays – If students have established these habits in school, they are likely to remember them over the holidays. As a parent, you can encourage your child to do things like shop after a meal, or select healthy options for holiday meals.

Sustainability Trends in School Food Service

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In many schools across the United States, from elementary through college, cafeterias are beginning to move towards providing healthier, sustainable options for students. Sustainable food is ethically responsible, minimizes the negative effects on the environment, prioritizes human health, and is produced from places that treat animals humanely and treat workers fairly.

The current generation of students cares about where their food comes from, and how it got to their plates – in other words, they care whether or not their food is sustainable. Kids are also craving more whole foods, like fruits and vegetables, and foods made from scratch instead of the highly processed foods that have been served in many cafeterias.

Schools that don’t provide sustainable food selections are running into problems – students don’t consider sustainability to be an option; it’s a necessity. High school students in Chicago are publicly protesting their current school lunch options, claiming that it is “unhealthy, unappetizing, and overly processed.” (WBEZ91.5)

So, what are successful schools doing to promote the sustainable food movement within school cafeterias? How are schools meeting the demands of students and their families? There are several things that schools are doing and can continue to do so that the foods kids are eating in school are good for them, good for the environment, and good for the future.

Taking Students’ Health into Consideration

There are some food preferences that students share at all ages like hand held foods, on-the-go options, made-to-order foods, and common staples, like fruits, pizza, chicken sandwiches, and salads. Taste preferences tend to differ depending on the age of the student; younger children prefer simpler foods and older ones enjoy more complex and diverse options.

Schools who support the sustainability movement understand these differences, and how to select food options based on student needs. For example, serving complex dishes to fourth graders would result in a lot more food waste, which is not sustainable, but college students are likely to appreciate it.

Reducing Kitchen Waste

There are a lot of ways to reduce the amount of waste that results from a school kitchen and cafeteria, from recycling and reusing materials and composting food waste to choosing more eco-friendly packaging and dish options. Many schools are choosing to get food locally, which minimizes the amount of packaging and padding required to transport it to the school, and ultimately, reduces waste.

Composting

Schools do tend to have some waste, but there is a sustainable way to deal with it. Composting takes sustainability one step further – it doesn’t end when the food is consumed. Children of all ages can learn to compost, from elementary through college. At the higher level, using compostable food packaging or other materials also reduces waste and adds to sustainability.

Compost can be reused as the process begins again – it can help fertilize landscaping, gardening and farming on school grounds.

Local Sourcing

Another way to promote sustainable food practices is to get food locally. Foods that travel the shortest distances have the least effect on the environment. It’s also easier to get local foods faster, which means that these foods are the freshest and are more likely to retain their health benefits by the time they’re served on a student’s plate.

School Gardens

One of the ultimate results of a more sustainable school food system, including compost as fertilizer, the most local sourcing possible, minimizing fuel and transportation costs, and using fresh, healthy, whole, foods, is that students and staff are taking things into their own hands, and growing their own sustainable foods. This can be a very cost effective option, and it can potentially fit the definition of sustainable food to a tee, depending on how the garden is cared for.

School Lunch Orders – Getting Paid Up Front vs. Getting Paid in the Lunch Line

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According to statistics, nearly one-third of children between 6 and 19 years of age are considered obese. And a contributing factor is their choosing less healthy foods in school lunchrooms.

To encourage children to make healthier food choices, schools need to consider implementing school lunch preorder and pre-payment programs that can preempt hunger-based, spontaneous selections while eliminating sensory cues like smells and sights. At the same time, preordering of lunch can help schools minimize waste, allow for minimal inventory, and optimize freshness of products.

What are the real benefits of school lunch preorder and pre-payment? We’ve listed them below.

Parents Are in Full Control of Students’ Eating Patterns

With meal preordering and payment, parents and children can decide in advance whether they’re packing a lunch or buying one. As such, they will never have to worry about last-minute treks to the grocery store or conversations like “Where’s my lunch?” ten minutes before the bus arrives.

Students Know What They’re Going to Be Served

When students know what they are going to be served, lunch service itself becomes significantly quicker. At the same time, preordering and pre-payment of lunch allows schools to increase revenue by reducing costs and operating more efficiently.

Studies have shown that for every dollar given for lunch money, only 70 cents gets spent at school. Since meal preordering and pre-payment involves online payments, a cashier is no longer needed. The money ends up in the bank without having to count the drawer, fill out the deposit slip, and run to the bank to deposit it. And parents don’t need to worry about how their child’s lunch money is really being spent.

Upfront Costs Are No Longer an Issue

When getting paid up-front, schools and lunch providers don’t need to be concerned about collecting the cash from the students. Also, receivables are no longer at risk of aging, minimizing collection risk considerably. As consumers, we pay for goods upfront when ordering online, and this can be applied to meal preordering as well.

Lunch Becomes More Organized and Takes Less Time

Paying for meals in the lunch line can be difficult to organize and supervise, especially when every student orders something different. This is not the case when school lunch orders are placed ahead of time: students just go to the lunchroom, and the attendant knows what to serve. There are no decisions to be made, and students don’t have to look for lunch money. Kids can simply pick-up their meal and eat it.

Schools Can Get Out of the Lunch Business Altogether

Schools are not in the food service business by choice. Feeding kids is a necessity. However, many schools choose to opt out of the school lunch order and payment process if possible. Most of the time, contracting with a management company or caterer to make and deliver food is the best option.

In most cases, food is provided by School Board selected vendors. While preordering of meals can solve many problems related to unhealthy food choices, organizers & boards fail to see how they can help with other issues. The food service process can become daunting, and easy solutions get lost in the mix of details. This holds especially true with the combination of order forms, lunch tickets, cash collection, and delivery coordination and reconciliation. Since preordering can help schools save money by eliminating waste, & streamline serving, it also helps students eat healthier.

Preordering and prepayment of school lunch orders will grow as educational institutions become more involved in the health of our nation’s children.