In the past, healthy eating and cafeteria lunches did not typically go hand-in-hand. However, school lunches are key in ensuring that healthy options for children are available at the cafeteria. What students put in their bodies; can affect how much energy they have to work with for the rest of the school day. But do students really know how to eat healthy at the school cafeteria? Parents or guardians are usually in control of the meal that a student gets. However, a school lunch in the cafeteria is where students get to control the foods they put in their mouths. Schools with healthy food choices can make or break how a student learns throughout the school day.
Thankfully, healthier food choices in school cafeterias have become more prevalent. Many of the lunch items offered are items that children like to eat and are more likely to choose. Cafeteria meal options were notoriously high fat in the past, like french fries, pizza, chicken nuggets, and other fried foods. There are nutritious options like vegetables or fruits, bread or rolls made with whole grains, and low-fat milk products for children to try. Some schools also have a salad bar full of colorful fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain pasta. Vending machines are temptations for students, but when students are full from eating healthy school lunches, they are less likely to purchase snacks from one.
What Are Healthy School Lunches?
By consuming a healthy meal, students can get filled up on healthier, more nutritious options than previously provided on lunch menus at schools. Student lunches should include choices that are low in fat and sugar. Healthy whole wheat items, fresh fruit and vegetable options, and meat or meat-free choices pack in protein are all part of a nutritious meal. A filling lunch chock-full of nutrients can help students avoid that spur-of-the-moment visit to the vending machine.
10 Tips for Students to Eat Healthy in the School Cafeteria
1. Healthy school breakfasts
School breakfasts are required to meet the health and diet requirements necessary to keep a child healthy. This is a federally funded program designed so that every time a child enters the classroom, it is full of stomachs and ready to learn. School breakfast must meet the requirements and recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. For students that qualify for free or reduced-fee meals, breakfast will consistently contain whole grain-rich foods, vegetables or fruits, meat or meat alternatives, and dairy products. Breakfasts also must be low or absent of trans and saturated fats and limited in sodium and calories.
Fruits and Vegetables, the Top Choices
2. Choose to fill up on yummy veggie options
Filling up cafeteria lunch trays with steamed or fresh vegetables is important for growing kids’ health and nutrition. If students choose veggies like a salad with leafy greens, carrots, and broccoli, or have sides that include veggies mixed in like veggie mac and cheese or cauliflower crust pizza, they are more likely to eat them. According to the USDA, vegetables provide many health benefits for a developing child, including reducing the risk of developing chronic diseases. Research data and information also demonstrates that veggies are crucial for body maintenance and health.
3. Fresh fruits fit the bill
Healthy eating plans should also include fruit. The majority of fruits are low calorie but high in fiber. Students can grab a nutritious piece of fruit, like an orange, apple, or banana, or a different fruit choice like berries, clusters of grapes, melon balls, cherries, and peaches. Parents can rest easy that fruits are popular, healthy food choices at school. Fruit juices should be avoided unless they are 100 percent fruit juice containing no added sugar. Since children are fond of sweets, filling up on fruits may eliminate a stop at the vending machine for a processed sugar choice.
4. Salad bars for the win!
If your student’s school meals offer a trip to the salad bar, they can load up healthy fruit and veggie options. When children make their own choices of fruits and vegetables, they are more invested in the process. Kids can enjoy a hands-on experience that may make cafeteria meals healthier and eating more enjoyable. Healthy fruits and vegetables supply the roughage and fiber a child needs. Protein options like cheese, lean meats, and hard-boiled eggs also mix in meat and dairy. Occasionally, low-fat yogurt or pudding is also available.
Other Great Choices
5. Pasta lovers
Children love pasta. Whether plain or covered with sauce or meatballs, kids are usually willing to eat healthy pasta lunch with whole grains. The pasta can also include vegetables or be veggie-based. Children can add sides like citrus fruit slices, a whole grain piece of garlic bread, and low sugar drinks, including milk.
6. Lean proteins help build strong muscles
School cafeterias are well-known for serving breaded or fried foods. These options should be reduced or eliminated, and more grilled or baked options made available. Protein in foods is crucial to good health and is needed in large amounts. Protein helps bodies repair themselves and build strong muscles. Recommendations for school-aged children are between 4-5 ounces per day.
Since many meat-based proteins are high in saturated fat, lower fat proteins are better for students to eat. Many healthier protein diet options are better for the nutrition of a developing child. Eating lower-fat or plant-based alternatives will keep the body’s repair system in good working order. Some lean possibilities include seafood, legumes and beans, quinoa, low-fat dairy products, lean and skinless turkey or chicken, soybeans, tofu. Plant-based proteins include fiber as well, which is not in meat products.
7. Healthy whole grains
According to the USDA’s medical advice, half of the weekly grains served in school cafeterias must be whole grains for the first two years of implementation. After the first two years, 100% of the grains served must be whole-grain rich. Grains that are unmilled and contain whole grain, including oatmeal, brown rice, whole cornmeal, and bread and pastries made with whole-wheat flours, are preferred to mill grains when included in meals served at schools. They are key sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals, and other key nutrients for good health.
8. Dairy options
USDA requirements state that school meals must include fluid milk that is fat-free and unflavored, or flavored and low-fat. Milk provides pivotal nutrients to school lunch programs. Milk is the number one source of several nutrients that are key in students of all ages. Dairy products, especially milk, provide five key nutrients listed in the Dietary Guidelines of schools. It contains protein, Vitamins D and A, calcium, potassium, and phosphorus. The guidelines recommend students increase their intake of fat-free and lower-fat products to 2 1/2 cups per day. Ages nine and up should consume three cups.
9. Grow a school community garden
One way to get students more involved and invested in their food choices and create a healthy school is to grow a school community garden. School gardens are activities to get students involved in the food they consume at school. They bring the school community together and provide opportunities for students to learn information about fresh produce and how it has lifelong health benefits. Parents can also be active participants in the maintenance and upkeep of the garden.
10. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate
Children are more at risk for dehydration than adults. Children often don’t recognize that they are thirsty. Because of this, schools should make plenty of drinks available throughout the school day. Water is the best liquid to drink to keep hydrated. Drinking plenty of fluid throughout the day helps aid digestion and aids kidney function. It also helps with the regulation of waste products.
As a healthy alternative to water, the CDC recommends milk due to its nutritional benefits. It contains calcium, minerals, vitamins, and protein. Students should try to avoid sugary drinks like sports drinks, soft drinks, and fruit juice. They have little nutritional value and are very high in sugar. Drink vending machines are usually stocked with sugary, caffeine-laden choices and should be avoided.
Quality food choices are a key to good health. Kids need valuable nutrition information. They require foods that help them learn and concentrate on their classwork. The meals and snacks that students eat affect academic performance. A focused brain is a learning brain. The foods a scholar eats have also been shown to increase creativity because the brain has been given healthy fuel. Food is just one aspect of a healthy student, but it is a crucial one.