MyPlate in the School Cafeteria

By Karen Ansel, MS, RDN, CDN
school lunch table

School meals are getting a whole new look. Thanks to the USDA's new Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, school meals are now looking a lot more like MyPlate, the government's roadmap for healthy eating. "MyPlate allows school nutrition professionals and students to speak the same language," says Rachel Begun, MS, RD. "Now school children will be able to make the connection between the changes they're seeing on their plates in school and the messages conveyed by the MyPlate visual."

Here's what's in store:

A bigger focus on fruits and vegetables

Potentially the most powerful MyPlate message is advice to make half your plate fruits and vegetables. Until recently, only about two thirds of schools offered fresh fruit every day at lunch and only a third served salad. Not any more. Now, schools will dish up fruit every day at breakfast as well as a fruit and a vegetable at lunch. "School nutrition professionals understand that increasing the amount of fruits and vegetables on the menu doesn't always mean kids will eat more of them," says Begun. "So, they're being more strategic about serving produce in ways that will increase kids' interest and consumption." That means cutting up fruit and vegetables into bite-sized pieces and serving them with dips, tossing fruit into yogurt parfaits, and mixing vegetables into side dishes like confetti brown rice, tabbouleh salad, or roasted potatoes with peppers and onions.

Grains get a whole lot healthier

According to a 2012 Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics study, less than 25 percent of nearly 700 public schools surveyed regularly included whole grains at lunch. Now, that's about to change. In keeping with MyPlate's message to make at least half of all grains whole, schools are working with suppliers to boost whole grains in bread, tortillas, pizza crust and pasta. They're also incorporating more whole grain flour into baked goods like muffins and pancakes.

Protein slims down

Most school-aged kids need four to six-and-a-half ounces of protein each day. To keep it heart-healthy, MyPlate encourages fish, skinless chicken and lean meat as well as plenty of plant-based protein. That means more oven baked fish nuggets, chicken teriyaki, and beef and bean burritos on whole-wheat tortillas. "When it comes to plant-based protein schools are getting really creative," says Begun. "They're implementing Meatless Mondays and offering plant-based protein options on other days of the week like tofu stir fries, bean and veggie burgers and tacos, and egg dishes on Breakfast for Lunch day."

Milk gets a makeover

MyPlate isn't just about what's on the plate. Drinks count too. That translates to low-fat milk and lots of it. Until now, only about a third of schools provided exclusively low or non-fat milk. Now they'll all be on board offering 1% milk, fat-free milk and fat-free chocolate milk. To help kids get even more of the bone-building calcium they need, schools will also be jumping on the growing popularity of low-fat yogurt, serving up low-fat yogurt cups and parfaits and even yogurt-based dips.

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