More fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, less sodium and a limit on calories served per meal—those are just some of the recommendations a committee of experts has made on how to improve the nation’s school lunch and breakfast menus.
“School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children”
A new report, “School Meals: Building Blocks for Healthy Children,” by the Institute of Medicine recommends that the Food and Nutrition Service of the USDA—which oversees the school meal programs—adopt standards for menu planning that are more in line with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
The recommended changes in school menu planning include increasing the amount and variety of fruit at breakfast and vegetables at lunch. Schools should offer starchy vegetables such as potatoes less often and provide more green leafy and orange vegetables and more legumes. No more than half the fruit should be juice.
Schools should ensure that half or more of the bread and other grain products they serve are rich in whole grains and they should reduce the amounts of unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
School meals must meet minimum calorie requirements to ensure growing children get enough energy. But given the increasing rate of childhood obesity, the report recommends that maximum calorie levels be set as well.
The amount of salt in school meals needs to be reduced given the long-term health risks associated with excessive sodium intake. A typical high school lunch contains around 1,600 milligrams of sodium, much more than the 740 milligrams recommended. Because gradual changes in food flavors are more acceptable than abrupt alterations, schools should phase in salt reductions over the next 10 years.
The report’s recommendations are based on the latest child health and nutrition science. They reflect the greater understanding of children's nutritional needs and the dietary factors that contribute to obesity and other chronic health problems we have gained since the school meal programs were last updated.
About 30.6 million schoolchildren—60 percent—participated daily in the school lunch program in fiscal year 2007, and 10.1 million children ate school breakfasts.