In September, nearly 32 million kids across the country saw big changes on their school-lunch trays. There were more fruits and vegetables, but smaller meat and grain portions. "You've got less meat on a smaller bun," Linette Dodson told TFK. She is the nutritionist for schools in Carrollton, Georgia. "The change caught everyone's attention."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the new school-lunch guidelines to address rising childhood-obesity rates. The rules limit portion sizes, calories, fat and salt. Some kids, mostly high schoolers and athletes, complained that the leaner meals left them hungry.
The limits on meats and grains forced schools to add snacks such as pudding and Jell-O to meet calorie requirements. "I would rather give kids more whole grains and lean proteins than foods that might not be as healthy," Dodson explains. "Fruits and veggies are great, but it would take a lot of broccoli and apples to meet the calorie targets."
In December, the USDA responded by relaxing the rules. Now schools can serve bigger meat and whole-grain portions, as long as these do not exceed calorie limits set for each grade level. "We understand that these changes are difficult, so we want to be flexible," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack told TFK. "But we need to educate folks about why eating healthful foods is important from a health care and educational standpoint."
Cooking Up Excitement
Other changes to school lunches have been easier to swallow. Following USDA guidelines, schools have found healthier ways to serve up lunchtime favorites. Fries and chicken nuggets are now baked, not fried. Everything from pizza crust to hot-dog buns to the breading on chicken nuggets is made from whole grains.
Some schools have found ways to persuade kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. Think a kid won't try roasted rutabaga soup? Have a chef visit the school to cook and serve it. Want students to try a new vegetable, such as kale or cauliflower? Have them grow it themselves in a school garden. How do you keep foods from going from tray to trash? Have students taste-test new recipes before adding them to the menu.
Fifth grader Mahli Fleckenstein relishes the changes. She eats all kinds of vegetables grown in the garden at West Salem Elementary, in Wisconsin. She has also given a thumbs-up to roasted Brussels sprouts and dried cranberries. Her favorite part of the lunch makeover? "There are so many different fruits to try," she says. "I'm a big fan of fruit."
Michelle Kloser, nutrition director for West Salem schools, isn't surprised that kids can develop an appetite for healthy fare. "The key is to get kids involved," she says. "Give them choices. Let them be a part of your school's decision making. You'll see how excited they can get about nutritious foods."
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