School cafeterias make major strides on student nutrition

School cafeterias make major strides on student nutrition

Elementary school cafeteria menus offer more fruits, vegetables and whole grains today compared to a decade ago, according to a new study.

More than 4,600 elementary schools that participate in the U.S. National School Lunch program were evaluated for their nutritional quality of school lunches. Researchers found that school lunches improved “significantly” between 2006-2007 and 2013-2014.

“School food service programs have worked hard to improve the nutritional quality of school lunches, and largely have been very successful,” says Lindsey Turner, director of the Initiative for Healthy Schools at Boise State University, in a press release.

The report, published in the Preventing Chronic Disease journal, highlights the increased availability of vegetables, fresh fruit, salad bars, whole grains and more healthy pizzas. At the same time, the availability of high-fat milks, fried potatoes and regular pizza decreased.

Despite these improvements, food choices varied by region, income level and race. For example, salad bars that provide students with choices of fresh vegetables and fruit are more prevalent in schools located in the west. Fresh fruit was less likely to be available at majority-black or Latino schools and salads were also less likely to be served at schools serving socioeconomically disadvantaged areas.

In addition to providing more healthy options, researchers suggest it’s important to promote these items to students through taste tests and social marketing to increase consumption.

Elizabeth Zawila, a registered dietician at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital’s Health and Wellness Center in Downers Grove, Ill., says the study highlights the very struggles that parents have at home with trying to get their children to eat more fruits and vegetables.

“As parents, we cannot assume that our children are eating their fruits and vegetables at school, so it’s even more important to make sure produce is present at dinner and snacks at home,” Zawila says. “I remind frustrated parents not to skip making vegetables as part of the meal just because their kids aren’t eating them. If children do not see their parents prepare and serve themselves vegetables, then the likelihood of them eating these healthy food options dramatically decreases.”

Zawila offers the following tips to incorporate more healthy foods into your family’s diet:

  • Include one fruit or vegetable in every meal – fruit on cereal, one piece of fruit packed in lunch box, vegetables and hummus as an after-school snack and another vegetable or two at dinner time.
  • Incorporate more vegetables into recipes – grated zucchini in pasta sauce or meatballs; add shredded cheese or parmesan to roasted vegetables or serve a vegetable kabob.
  • Serve fruit as dessert – sliced bananas, grapes, apple slices and pineapple can be dipped in caramel sauce or yogurt.
  • Avoid buying high-calorie foods such as chips and cookies. Children may not ask for these items if they aren’t in sight.
  • Invite children to pick out a new fruit or vegetable at the grocery store.
  • Ask children to help with meal planning and cooking. They will become more interested in eating what they’ve helped create.

“Research shows that it can take up to 15 tastes before a child learns to appreciate a new flavor,” Zawila says. “While it can be a struggle, the earlier kids learn to embrace fruits and vegetables the better, as these nutritious habits will last a lifetime.”

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About the Author

Johnna Kelly
Johnna Kelly

Johnna Kelly, healthe news contributor, is a manager of public affairs and marketing at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn. She is a former newspaper reporter and spent nearly 10 years as a public relations professional working for state and county government. During her time as a communications staffer for the Illinois General Assembly, she was integral in drafting and passing legislation creating Andrea's Law, the nation's first murderer registry. In her spare time, she volunteers at a local homeless shelter, enjoys traveling, photography and watching the Chicago Bulls.