Kids eat right.

Smart Snacks in Schools

Contributors: Susan Thompson, MS, RDN, LDN and Esther Ellis, MS, RDN, LDN
Smart Snacks in Schools

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School snacks have become smarter thanks to the USDA's Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010. Among the newest implemented changes are updated guidelines for what can be sold to students on campus during the school day outside the standard meal offerings. Touted as the "Smart Snacks in School" rule, the goal is to offer "more of the foods we should encourage [and] less of the foods we should avoid," according to the "Smart Snacks" handout.

The Smart Snacks Breakdown

  • Meet specific nutrient standards for calories, fats, sodium and total amount of sugar;
  • Be a whole-grain-rich product; or
  • Have as the first ingredient a fruit, vegetable, dairy product or protein food; or
  • Be a "combination food" with at least ¼ cup fruit and/or vegetable.

 But what does that mean for kids at school? Here's everything you need to know about the snacking guidelines.

Focus on Fruits and Vegetables

The push for more produce at breakfast and lunch also is front and center with Smart Snacks by allowing fresh, frozen and canned vegetables with no added ingredients or that contain only a small amount of sugar (used to maintain quality during processing). Encourage students to enjoy a rainbow of colors when choosing snacks! Include nutritional powerhouse items such as salads made with dark green and red-orange vegetables or salsa made with black beans, peppers and corn as a la carte selections.

Cut the Calories

In order to combat the childhood obesity trend, snacks, sides and entrees sold as competitive foods will have calorie limits. As part of the USDA's Smart Snacks standards, calorie limits for snack items must be less than or equal to 200 calories, and entrée items must be less than or equal to 350 calories.

Slash the Added Sugar and Sodium

Schools already have been working to reduce added sugar and sodium in meals, but extending this effort to snacks will give way to healthier packaged items.

Fix the Fat

To help keep hearts and bodies fit, saturated fat for Smart Snacks must be less than 10% of calories and trans fats are not allowed. Total fat is limited to less than or equal to 35% of calories with exemptions for some good-for-you foods such as reduced-fat cheese, nuts, seeds, nut/seed butters, unsweetened dried fruits and some seafood.

Rethink Drink Options

The Smart Snacks in School rule has established age-appropriate portion size standards for all non-water beverages reinforcing the important dietary concepts of moderation and balance. Low-fat and fat-free milk and 100% juice varieties are allowed in 8-ounce portions at elementary schools with portion size increasing to 12 ounces at middle and high schools. Beyond water, milk and juice, additional calorie-free and lower-calorie beverages are options for high school students:

  • Calorie-free beverages in up to 20-ounce portions
  • Lower-calorie beverages with up to 40 calories per 8 ounces, or 60 calories per 12 ounces, which is the maximum portion size

To allow a wider variety of appealing selections for high school students, caffeinated beverages meeting the Smart Snack standards are allowed.

Improvements beyond the Cafeteria

Because busy students often have choices outside the cafeteria, the Smart Snacks rule also applies to foods sold everywhere else on school grounds. So while competitive foods sold alongside meals are greatly affected, so are foods sold in school stores and vending machines.

Well-nourished children perform better in the classroom, and these changes will encourage cooperation — along with school nutrition programs and the entire school environment — to create an optimal cultural shift towards wellness.

Is Your Snack a Smart One?

Take the speculation away with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation Product Calculator for Smart Snacks. With a few simple answers, you can determine whether your beverage, snack, side or entrée item meets the USDA Smart Snacks in School guidelines.