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.
Food waste — when edible items go uneaten, including "plate waste" in retail establishments such as restaurants and cafeterias — is an increasingly important issue in food security. According to a 2014 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, "In the United States, 31 percent — or 133 billion pounds — of the 430 billion pounds of the available food supply at the retail and consumer levels in 2010 went uneaten." As structures and systems evolve to reduce this percentage, so do discussions about what we can do to reduce food waste at schools, in retail locations such as restaurants and supermarkets, and at home.
Get your family involved — and include your children, who can make a great impact at reducing food waste at school!
For example, a child is more likely to eat apple wedges than a whole apple during a school lunch period, according to Wesley Delbridge, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. As director of food and nutrition in the Chandler Unified School District in Arizona, Delbridge and his colleagues develop techniques to encourage children to eat all of their lunch and thus minimize plate waste.
There are many reasons for plate waste. If kids don't like the taste of a food, they won't eat it. Food also is thrown away if lunch is served when students aren't hungry, if lunch periods are too short or if students rush through their meals in order to start recess. Peer pressure also may discourage some kids from trying new foods or admitting that they like foods their friends may not like, Delbridge adds. Some schools measure plate waste and use this information to adjust their menus, recipes and the lunchroom environment, improving their ability to provide tasty and nutritious meals to their students.
Parents: Get Involved
Reducing plate waste at school can lower the school district's costs and boost your child's nutrition. "Parents should put the same importance on nutrition as they do on homework," Delbridge urges.
- Take a look at your school's menus. Many schools post menus online or distribute them in parent newsletters. Review food options and discuss them with your child, asking which items your child likes.
- Encourage your child to try not only new foods, but old foods in new ways. Maybe your child has never tasted mango or sweet potato, or perhaps your child doesn't enjoy steamed broccoli. Describe the taste and texture of new foods to reduce possible anxiety. Discuss the crunch of raw broccoli after dipping it into low-fat ranch dressing, for example.
- Find out what they ate. After school, ask your children what they ate, what they liked and what they didn't like. Ask if they had enough time to eat. When appropriate, share this feedback with your school's nutrition team or principal.
- Make trying new foods a family activity. Exposing your children to new foods at home will help them accept unfamiliar foods elsewhere.
Reduce Plate Waste at Home
Reducing plate waste at home is a good way to save money and boost kids' nutrition as well. Serve meals family-style — allowing your children to select foods they want in appropriate portions, suggests Angela Lemond, RDN, LD, CSP, spokesperson for the Academy.
"Teach your children that good nutrition can help them grow and do well at school and in sports. Kids will copy their parents, so show them that you enjoy good nutrition and new foods," Lemond says.
Some of the same questions that pertain to your kid's school lunchroom experience can be applied to eating out. Offering kids the opportunity to try foods while dining out is a great time to try foods you don't usually make at home.
Using the same strategies registered dietitian nutritionists suggest for portion control, such as splitting meals or having the server box up half the meal before it's served, can help reduce food waste as well.