March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Across the nation, school cafeterias are offering more of what vegetarian parents and students want. Look for vegan burgers, bean burritos and grilled tofu. Chances are that they'll be served with locally grown produce too. You and your kids will find more vegetarian options and locally produced foods than ever before.
Whether your children are strict vegans (they eat nothing that comes from animals), vegetarians or part-time vegetarians, they'll find more choices to fit their needs and tastes. The National School Lunch Program now encourages schools to offer a variety of meat alternatives including beans, tofu and soy yogurt.
These new guidelines "better meet the dietary needs of vegetarians and culturally diverse groups in schools," explains Debbi Beauvais, RD, SNS, school nutrition director in Rochester, New York, and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Other items your kids might spot in the cafeteria are vegetarian chili or taco salads, rice and beans, hummus wraps, black bean or lentil soup, and salads or salad bars with black beans, kidney beans, peas and chickpeas. The choices are even greater for vegetarians who eat dairy and eggs. Some nutritious options are egg salad sandwiches, veggie and cheese wraps and fruit and yogurt parfaits.
Supporting Local Farmers
Many foods sold in the school cafeteria now come from local farmers and food producers. Nearly half of school districts provide locally grown fruits and vegetables, says Beauvais. "From peppers and parsley to rice and radishes, local foods are popping up on school lunch trays alongside milk, which is almost always locally produced."
Additionally, nearly one-third of school districts are involved in farm to school initiatives, and the other 41 percent are interested in getting involved, she adds. Farm to School programs connect schools and local farms with the goals of improving student nutrition and providing educational opportunities in agriculture, health and nutrition. Eating local foods helps students experience eating seasonally when foods are at their peak taste and lowest cost. If your school doesn't yet have a program, check out the Farm to School Network to learn how to get one started, suggests Corey J. Wu-Jung, MS, RD, program coordinator for the Northern Region of Grow Healthy Team Nutrition Program of Rutgers Cooperative Extension. A school garden is another fabulous tool for teaching kids about food and nutrition. "Students experience firsthand how fruits, vegetables and herbs grow and then are excited to eat them," adds Wu-Jung. Don’t be surprised if your kids teach you about unusual fruits and vegetables and ask to eat them at home too. If you’d like to start a garden at your children's school, begin by gaining the support of your parent organization and school administrators. Also reach out to teachers, the school foodservice staff and the custodial staff. Finally, Wu-Jung suggests, team up with a registered dietitian nutritionist to provide grade-appropriate, hands on nutrition lessons and to demonstrate simple recipes incorporating foods grown in the garden.
Above all, encourage your kids to try and enjoy the new school offerings.