Nutrition Education Resources

School Lunch: Information for Parents

When children eat school lunch, they are more likely to consume milk, meats, grains and vegetables compared to students who don't, including students who bring lunch from home. They also have higher nutrient intakes — both at lunch and over the course of an entire day.1 And cost-wise, school lunch is a great value. A typical school lunch contains an entree, two servings of fruits and vegetables, a grain item and milk. From children to parents to teachers, everyone benefits when kids eat school lunch!

School Lunch: A Healthy Choice

School lunches are nutritious! In order to qualify as a federally reimbursable school lunch, meals must meet specific guidelines. School lunches must:

  • Provide a variety of foods from MyPlate and meet one-third of children's daily calorie needs.
  • Provide one-third of children's daily needs for "problem nutrients" — protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium.
  • Limit the amount of fat to 30 percent or less of calories and saturated fat to 10 percent of calories when averaged over the course of a week.
  • Offer a variety of milk options, including fat-free, low-fat and reduced-fat milk. Schools can also offer flavored milk and lactose-reduced milk.

School Lunch and Nutrient-Rich Foods

Visit your child's school cafeteria and you're likely to find items like whole-wheat, reduced-fat cheese pizza; a variety of fruits and vegetables; fat-free flavored milk and low-fat yogurt. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA) call for increased consumption of nutrient-rich foods from all the food groups - nutrients that fall short in most Americans' diets. Today's school lunches encourage children to eat more often from the FGTE, because they offer a variety of fresh fruits, whole grains, vegetables and lower-fat milk choices.

Milk: The Lunch Beverage of Choice

Encourage your children to choose milk with their lunch. Research shows that children who go for a container of milk at lunch are more likely to get the calcium they need than children who drink other beverages, such as juice drinks.2 Studies also show that:

  • Lunch-time milk drinkers take in more of the nutrients that are typically low in children's diets, such as vitamin A and zinc.3
  • Having the choice of flavored milk at lunch can help children meet their calcium needs. Children prefer flavored milk and drink more milk when it's flavored. And flavored milk provides the same amount of calcium and eight other essential nutrients as white milk.

Learn why flavored milk is a nutritious choice.

Recess Before Lunch

Kids want and need to play and they need to eat! Recess before lunch allows children to have adequate time for both and can make a big difference in lots of ways. A 1995 ground-breaking study4 showed that when kids have recess before lunch, there are some impressive benefits, including:

  • Less wasted food and milk — So children get more nutrients and are less hungry when they return to class.
  • Better lunchroom behavior — So students have the time and opportunity to enjoy their meal without feeling the need to rush out and play. Having used excess energy, they are more relaxed, quieter and ready to eat.
  • Improved classroom performance — So students are calmer, more settled and ready to learn.
  • Improved afternoon classroom behavior — So teachers have more uninterrupted teaching time after lunch.

Talk about the benefits of scheduling recess before lunch with your school principal.

Pack Plenty of Good Nutrition in Lunches from Home

Make good nutrition a priority and involve your children in planning lunches from home. Their "buy-in" makes it less likely foods will be traded, go in the garbage, or come home uneaten.

  • Let the Food Groups Be the Guide. As a rule-of-thumb, make sure lunches include at least three of the MyPlate Five Food Groups. Pack whole, fresh foods instead of processed foods. For example, fresh fruit instead of fruit snacks.
  • Have Children Buy Milk. Send money to school for children to purchase milk with their lunch instead packing a fruit juice, fruit-drink or soft drink. Research shows that children who drink milk with lunch are more likely to meet their daily calcium needs. Fruit flavored beverages and soft drinks provide calories and few, if any, nutrients. If children bring juice with lunch, make sure it is 100 percent juice. Make sure you pack lower-fat cheese or a yogurt in their lunch for a Milk Group serving.
  • Let Children Choose Flavored Milk. Flavored milk has the same nutrients as white milk. Research shows that children who drink flavored milk don't consume more fat or sugar than children who drink only white milk.
  • Serve the Same Foods with a New Twist. Cut cheese into cubes instead of slices or cut apples into circles instead of wedges.
  • Consider Likes and Dislikes. Have your children help you create a list of foods they like for lunch. Take them to the grocery store and ask for lunch box suggestions.
  • Keep Foods Safe. Use an insulated lunch box that includes an ice pack.

Lunch Box Ideas

Packing different lunches keep kids from getting bored and helps ensure they get the variety of foods needed for a nutritious diet. Here are a few ideas to help you "think out of the lunchbox."

Use different breads or cut them into different shapes

  • Wrap a salad or lean meat and cheese in a tortilla or mountain bread
  • Roll a tortilla spread with hummus and grated carrots or refried beans mixed with cheese
  • Make tuna and cheese subs instead of a traditional sandwich
  • Stuff mini-pita pockets with different sandwich fillings
  • Sprinkle cheese in a pita spread with pizza sauce
  • Tuck in an "I Love You" note or a riddle

Serve a salad instead of a sandwich

  • Toss leftover pasta with veggies and dressing
  • Serve a "salad in a bag" with shredded cheese and low-fat dressing on the side

Pair vegetables, grains and protein-rich foods

  • Cut, fresh vegetables, cheese cubes and whole-grain crackers
  • Hummus with pita wedges and vegetables for dipping
  • Hard-cooked egg and whole-grain roll.

Serve leftovers - Many leftovers taste great served cold!

  • Cold spaghetti
  • Chicken pieces
  • Baked ziti or other casseroles
  • Pizza slices

Send soup or chili in a thermos

  • Add a small bag of shredded cheese to sprinkle on top

Make it yogurt

  • Yogurt in a tube or drinkable yogurt with a muffin and fruit
  • A carton of yogurt with low-fat granola and fruit to mix in
  • A smoothie in a thermos along with a banana and graham crackers

References:

  1. USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Children's Diets in the Mid-1990's: Dietary Intake and Its Relationship with School Meal Participation, 2001.
  2. Johnson, RK, et al. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2002. 102:853-56.
  3. Johnson, RK, et al. Journal of Child Nutrition and Management, 1998. 2:95-100.
  4. Gettlinger, MJ, et al. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1996. 96: 906-8.