AHS August Blog: This School Year, Let’s Choose School Meals!
The Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences (AHS) publishes a monthly blog written by students, alumni, and faculty sharing important topics and helpful resources related to the fields of agricultural, extension, and human science. In the August blog post, Virginia Stage, AHS Assistant Professor; Jocelyn Dixon, FEEd Lab Assistant Director; Sydney Knowles, Sampson County Extension Family Consumer Science Agent; and Laura Radford, undergraduate in Applied Nutrition Science provides information and resources on how to create healthy meals for your child at school.
This month, many families across North Carolina (NC) face a new school year, and the question many parents are asking is “what will my child eat for breakfast and lunch?” Did you know, most public schools participate in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP)? These programs help schools to serve free or reduced-price meals to students. Your child may qualify for free or reduced price lunch as part of the NSLP and/or SBP at your child’s school.
School meals often get a bad reputation for being unhealthy or unappetizing, but in reality, school meals have come a long way since the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act was signed into law. As we move together into a new school year, here are some facts to know about school meals:
School Meals are Balanced and Healthy
The new nutrition standards require school meals to include more servings of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein sources, and low-fat dairy, and to reduce the amount of sodium, saturated fat, and added sugar in school meals.1 According to a 2018 study, school meals are among the healthiest meals that Americans eat, even accounting for food bought from grocery stores.2 Every school meal provides all components of the USDA’s MyPlate (protein, whole grains, fruit, vegetable, and milk).3
Talk to Your Child About What They Eat at School
While school meals follow MyPlate guidelines, students are not required to take every food (e.g., protein, fruit, vegetable) or eat all the food they take.4 Talk with your child about what they’re eating at school. Ask them questions like, “What did you have for lunch today?” or “What’s one food you enjoyed at school today?” If children express interest in a healthy food they ate at school, try preparing that food in a new way at home!
Curious About What Your Child is Eating?
Many schools post the breakfast and lunch menus online (or in a phone app) for parents to view.5 However, if internet access is unavailable or the school website does not have the menu available online, call or drop by your school to find out more information and request a copy of the menus. If you would like more detailed information, the cafeteria manager at your school or nutrition director for your school district can offer insight into school meal policies and specific nutritional or allergy facts about school meals.5
Keep an Eye On Snack Foods at School
Many schools sell snack foods that are not included in the meals prepared by cafeteria staff. These foods, also known as “smart snacks”, are often sold as a-la-carte, in school stores, vending machines, or other places where students have the opportunity to purchase food. Smart snacks are required to meet certain nutritional guidelines.6 However, a regular school meal will provide a nutritionally complete meal while a snack may not, even if it meets the “smart snacks” standards. Talk with your child about the importance of eating a balanced meal over snack foods.
Get Creative with After School Snacks
After school snacks can also be a source of stress. Prepare healthy snacks ahead of time to ensure healthy choices are visible and easily available for kids to grab. For ideas on how to make after school snacks at home, try out some of the recipes on the EatRight website, which is published by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.7
Additionally, if your child has after school care or activities that require a snack on the go, try out snacks such as:
- Fresh or freeze dried fruit (e.g., banana, apple slices) with nut or seed butter
- Nut or seed butter sandwich
- Granola or protein bar (watch out for high levels of sugar!)
- Whole grain crackers or popcorn
- Fruit cup with No Sugar Added
- Unsweetened applesauce cup or squeezable pack
These snacks all contain a source of protein/fat or a healthy carbohydrate that contains fiber, and all provide a variety of vitamins, minerals.
Choosing School Meals Helps to Support School Cafeterias
School cafeterias have a separate budget from the rest of the school, and must generate enough revenue from meal sales and reimbursements through the NSLP and SBP to pay kitchen and lunchroom staff, procure food, and even buy new kitchen equipment and dining ware.8 Choosing for your child to eat breakfast and lunch at school can help to ensure your school is able to provide better pay for staff, hire an adequate number of staff personnel, and keep kitchens and lunchrooms updated to enable safe and efficient preparation of school meals.
Be An Advocate for Healthy School Meals – School Meals Are For Everyone
While choosing to have your child eat school breakfast and lunch goes a long way toward supporting your school’s cafeteria, it can also mean one less chore the night or morning before the school day! It is a community effort to keep kids fed well, and it requires everyone working together. School meals are a great way to allow the community at large to help make feeding students healthy meals a little easier each day!
If you would like to support school meals in North Carolina and policies that ensure school meals are healthy for students, consider subscribing to the newsletters of and/or donating to School Meals For All NC and Healthy Eating Research. For more information on applying for free and reduced-price lunch, visit USDA’s website and your child’s school website or office.
- USDA Office of Communications. Fact sheet: Healthy, hunger free kids act school meals implementation. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.usda.gov/media/press-releases/2014/05/20/fact-sheet-healthy-hunger-free-kids-act-school-meals-implementation
- Pratt-Heavner, D. (2023, March 23). SNA comments on USDA’s proposed nutrition standards. School Nutrition Association. https://schoolnutrition.org/sna-news/sna-comments-on-usdas-proposed-nutrition-standards/
- Namian, T. (2022, March 2). Meal Requirements Under the National School Lunch Program Metro Center and School Breakfast Program: Questions and Answers for Program Operators Updated to Support the Transitional Standards 1320 for Milk, Whole Grains, and Sodium Effective July 1, 2022. United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/SP05-2022os.pdf#page=5
- Kline, A.M. (2015, July 21). Updated offer vs serve guidelines for the NSLP and SBP Beginning SY2015-16. United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. https://www.fns.usda.gov/cn/updated-offer-vs-serve-guidance-nslp-and-sbp-beginning-sy2015-16
- School Nutrition Association. School meals program information for parents. https://schoolnutrition.org/resource/school-meals-program-information-parents/
- United States Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service. (2022, May). A guide to smart snacks in school. https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/smartsnacks.pdf
- eatright.org., Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Snacks and sides. https://www.eatright.org/recipes/snacks-and-sides
- Sorrells, A. (2022, April 18). Behind the lunch tray: A look at how school meals are funded. Education NC. https://www.ednc.org/school-meals-finance/