Does school lunch meet your child's nutritional needs?

We have three boys, ages 12, 11, and 6. We are very concerned about the nutritional value of the school lunches. We would like for them to have a hot lunch but right now we ask them to take their lunches instead of eating the school meals. The elementary school lunches average 821 calories per lunch with 30 percent fat. The junior high school serves pizza and subs every day and they don't publish the calorie or fat content. How can we best meet their nutritional needs?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

The quality of school lunch programs can vary greatly depending on where your live and who is in charge. Many schools have very innovative directors who manage to do a lot with a little in terms of a budget, in coming up with highly nutritious, yet delicious and kid-pleasing menus. Other schools merely get by on the minimum, meeting the standards that have been spelled out by the regulations.

Unless you have the time, knowledge, motivation and energy to try to make changes in your local school lunch programs, the best thing that you can do is to pack a lunch for your boys. Better yet, let them make their own lunches based on items you all agree are okay. Lunches can often be packed the night before to make things more efficient in the morning.

Although you asked what the nutritional requirements are for boys your age, I don't think it necessary for you to get bogged down in those numbers, particularly in trying to assign them to specific meals. Kids may eat vast amounts at one meal, and pick at the next. They may eat like there's no tomorrow one day, and when tomorrow comes, they eat next to nothing. Kids, if they have been encouraged to remain in touch with their body's cues to hunger and satiety, will eat the amount they need. Growth and activity will dictate most of that.

Boys going through a growth spurt will eat lots, but cut back when the spurt is over. Therefore, don't get caught up in how many calories they need at lunch, because that will vary from day to day, week to week. What is important, is to know what a good lunch should and should not include.

A lunch to get kids through a busy afternoon should contain: An excellent source of protein, such as low fat turkey breast, hard boiled egg, low fat cheese, tofu, or peanut butter. Protein has the effect of not only supporting tissue growth and maintenance, it also helps keep them alert. A meal of all carbohydrates can induce drowsiness, which just compounds the effects of naturally lower biorhythms that occur in mid-afternoon. It should contain a source of complex carbohydrates for time released energy, and a source of fat for staying power. It should also have a cup of calcium rich milk or fortified soy milk. The fat content of the lunch should not be so low that hunger will set in long before dinner, but it should be low enough to be healthy. Although the jury is still out on the optimum fat content for kid's diets, I suggest that you try to aim for a diet that contains 20 to 25 percent fat. Thirty percent fat is a generous allotment and is the maximum amount suggested.

The following may be a useful guideline to follow when packing lunch:

  • 1 cup milk, or one container of yogurt (or the money to purchase)
  • Generous amounts of complex carbohydrates (e.g. sandwich bread, bagel, crackers, graham crackers, fruit)
  • Moderate serving of high quality protein (e.g. tuna salad, low fat cheese, sliced sandwich meats or leftover meat from dinners, peanut butter)
  • A small amount of fat for a long lasting source of energy (e.g. peanut butter, nuts, avocado, or homemade healthy treats that contain fat such as a muffin)
  • A bonus to get them to eat at lunch is a piece of fruit or some fresh veggies.

Translating this into examples would look like this:

  1. Bagel with peanut butter, milk money, apple
  2. Tuna salad on whole wheat, baby carrot sticks, homemade cookies, milk money
  3. Hard boiled egg, muffin, banana, milk money
  4. Tortilla rolled up with low fat turkey breast low fat cheese, and lettuce, bag of nuts and raisins, milk money

Remember that a school lunch is often eaten in haste, in an atmosphere of noise and chaos. It is not a place that is conducive to slow, relaxed enjoyment of food. Therefore, I suggest you do your best to be sure they eat the most important items, the protein and the carbohydrate, and feel thankful if some fruits and vegetables are eaten too. Save the calm setting of dinner to try and catch up on the days necessary servings of fruits and vegetables that were not fulfilled in breakfast, snacks, or lunch.

Be realistic in the size of the lunch you fix, kids just don't have much time to eat. Especially for your six year old son, it is important to also include a mid-morning snack. Littler children cannot often go a whole morning without getting hungry. Put in an extra fig bar or bag of graham crackers for morning recess for him.

Lunch should definitely not include much, if any, sugary foods. When kids are short on time, they may go for sugary foods first, leave the sandwich, and then suffer a major let down a couple of hours later when the sugar boost has worn off. If you do include treats, try to make them treats that carry some nutrition, such as homemade quick breads or muffins like banana or pumpkin bread, or oatmeal cookies with raisins. Other foods to avoid are those that are highly processed, without much nutritional value such as bags of potato chips, highly refined crackers or cracker type foods (stick to whole wheat crackers), candy, cookies, 'fruit' type treats such as gummy bears, etc., non-juice drinks like Kool-Aid or sodas, or iced tea.

Here's to healthy lunches for all your boys!

Followup Comment:

This is a followup to a previous response on the nutritional content of school lunches. I forwarded your question to a nutritionist who works with the school lunch program and she had some insights that I think you will find helpful.

She said: All lunches have to meet the dietary guidelines and provide one third of estimated calorie needs (which is where the 800 plus calories comes from) and meals must average 30 plus or less of calories from fat over the week's menus. Most food service managers have modified recipes for kids' favorite foods to make them lower in fat, while still looking and tasting like the "high test" items. Many parents don't appreciate the calorie needs of active, growing children as they are tuned more into their own energy requirements which are significantly less!

The rule of thumb for kids' calories is 1000 plus 100 for each year of age. That is just ballpark, with adjustments necessary for activity levels, etc. I have a 6'6" son who I know was consuming 5,000 plus calories in high school when he was playing soccer every day, doing his morning paper route, and bouncing off the walls at night!

You may be headed in that same direction, with three growing young sons. Good luck and enjoy!

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