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Kids Heading Back to Classes?

School Meals Get a Makeover

Lunch Tray

By Karen Ansel, MS, RD, CDN

The school cafeteria just got a whole lot healthier. Earlier this year, the USDA launched the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act designed to improve the nutrition of 32 million schoolchildren nationwide. This August and September, when kids head back to the classroom, hot dogs will give way to turkey subs on whole-wheat, 1 percent and skim milk will replace whole milk, and fruits and vegetables will command prime real estate on student's plates.

The goal: to deliver wholesome meals that mirror the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the government's blueprint for optimal nutrition. "It's well documented that well nourished children perform better in the classroom," says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Spokesperson Kristi L. King, RDN, LD. "With these changes we can expect to see our kids' bodies filled with healthy foods and their brains working on all cylinders for peak performance."

Here's what's on the menu:

A Bigger Bounty of Fruits and Vegetables

The push for more produce begins at breakfast where every morning meal will now contain at least one serving of fruit. Lunches will do double-duty with both a fruit and a vegetable. And those vegetables will be filled with a variety of hues ranging from red and orange to deep, dark green. "Currently, only 10 percent of children consume dark green or red-orange vegetables on a daily basis," says Academy Spokesperson Deborah S. Beauvais, RDN, SNS. "Each of these colors gives kids different nutrients they need for energy production and concentration."

An Eye on Heart Health

Although it may be hard to imagine now, the type of fat in our kids' diets can impact their heart health later in life. To keep young hearts in tip top share, saturated fat will continue to be capped at 10 percent of calories overall. New measures will be taken to help schools meet the goal. For starters, only fat free or 1 percent milk will be offered. Schools will also receive assistance rounding up foods that are lower in saturated fat like skinless poultry, lean meat and heart smart vegetable oils. In addition, trans fats will be limited to zero grams per serving.

Sodium Gets Slashed

Before the implementation of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, a school lunch could easily contain more than 1,400 milligrams of sodium – that's 60 percent of most children's maximum daily allotment. So it's no surprise that schools will need to get tough on sodium, just not all at once. Over the next decade, schools will slowly be required to reduce sodium by 25 to 50 percent, starting with a 5 to 10 percent decrease by 2014.

Whole Grains Make Their Move

"Whole grains take longer to digest so they provide more sustainable energy than refined grains," says King. They also contain important nutrients like B vitamins, selenium and magnesium. To make it easier for kids to get their fill, half of all grains offered will now be whole. That means more whole-wheat bread, spaghetti and pizza crust. The whole grain push doesn't end there. In two years all grains offered will be required to be whole.

Improvements Beyond the Lunchroom

Because busy students don't always eat in the cafeteria, the USDA is currently in the process of developing guidelines for foods sold from vending machines and outside of the lunchroom. But many schools aren't waiting. "We're seeing more and more healthy vending machines and they're getting rave reviews," says Beauvais. With choices like sandwiches, salads, fresh fruits, veggies, and low fat and fat free milk, grabbing a bite after school will soon be a whole lot healthier too.

Reviewed April 2013

Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN is a nutrition consultant, journalist and author specializing in nutrition, health and wellness.