Tips for healthy eating at school from the School Nutrition Association

Students in Arlington County sample an assortment of locally grown fruits and vegetables. Photo: Rick Brady/SNA

In the second of our guest articles celebrating Back to School Week on ABC7 and, the president of the School Nutrition Association talks about how to keep your kids eating healthy as they return to campus.

Good news, parents! When your students head back to school, they'll find healthier choices in their school cafeterias. Under new federal nutrition standards, schools are offering students more fruits, vegetables and whole grains and limiting the sodium, calories and unhealthy fat in school meals.

Students will find a wide variety of vegetables choices at lunch time too - cafeterias must offer dark leafy greens, vitamin-packed red or orange vegetables and fiber-rich beans or legumes every week. And starting this year, students will be required to take one of the fruit and vegetable choices offered, so your students will always have a fruit or vegetable on their trays.

School cafeterias across the Washington, D.C. region have been mixing up the menu in recent years, swapping out white bread for whole wheat, preparing healthier versions of kid favorites, and introducing locally grown produce on the menu. Under the new federal nutrition standards, all parents can rest assured that their students will be offered a well-balanced, healthy school lunch at school.

In fact, a new national survey by the School Nutrition Association shows school food service professionals are finding creative ways to meet the new standards while enticing students to eat the healthier choices offered.

Cafeterias are serving fruits and vegetables in a variety of ways to appeal to students' diverse preferences. For students in a hurry, more schools are providing convenient grab-and-go options.

Nearly 64 percent of school districts offer pre-prepared salads and 67 percent serve grab-and-go bags of produce, like baby carrots, grapes and sliced apples or oranges, which students can eat on the run or toss in their backpacks for later.

Locally sourced produce popular

In addition to produce offered in the traditional serving line, more than 55 percent of responding school districts have self-serve salad or produce bars, and many districts are purchasing their produce from local farmers.

More than 60 percent of respondents say they will purchase locally-grown or locally-raised items in the coming school year. For example, Arlington Public Schools serves a wide variety of produce grown on farms within 100 miles of Arlington - everything from butternut squash to Asian pears.

Students are also finding a wider variety of whole-grain rich foods at meal time. In addition to whole-wheat breads and buns, schools are serving brown rice and whole-grain pasta, tortillas and cereals.

This year, students at Alexandria City Public Schools can choose from home-style favorites like chicken and whole grain dumplings and unique offerings like the new Baja fish taco, served with brown rice and broccoli slaw.

Cafeterias are making kid favorites healthy choices too. In 42 percent of school districts, pizza is still the most popular lunch entrée served, but over 92 percent of districts are serving pizza with a whole-grain rich crust.

Districts also report serving student favorites that use less salt and lower-fat ingredients, like whole grain macaroni and cheese made with low-fat, low-sodium sauce.

School food service professionals are nudging students to expand their finicky tastes as well. This year, Prince George's County Public Schools will serve colorful choices like their tangerine chicken with rice, steamed broccoli and carrots and fresh watermelon. And a healthy new addition to Fairfax County Public Schools menus is the baked chicken served with zucchini bread, sweet potatoes, seasoned chili beans and other fruit and vegetable choices.

Taste tests for new foods

Cafeterias aren't just serving healthy choices; they're also actively encouraging students to try these new menu items.

One of the most popular ways that school districts get students involved in the menu selection process by allowing them to taste test and provide feedback on potential new foods or recipes. Through taste tests, cafeterias gain valuable student insight which helps them identify healthy choices that students are interested to eat.

And when introducing new menu items, many cafeterias offer students free samples, giving students the chance to taste an unfamiliar food before they commit to selecting that item as part of their meal.

In Anne Arundel County Public Schools, students can have their fill of unlimited fruits and vegetables, and through the "Tasting of the Rainbow" program, students are encouraged to sample a new fruit or vegetable each month, like purple cauliflower and mango.

Encourage healthy eating at home, too

Of course, kids are far more likely to pick up a fruit or vegetable in the cafeteria if they've already tried those items at home. Parents can host fruit and veggie taste tests of their own. Try using cookie cutters to cut bell peppers, apples or pears into fun shapes. Instead of chips, have a variety of fruits and vegetables to dunk in kid-favorite dips, including hummus or low-fat ranch or yogurt.

Don't forget to encourage your child to try these fruits and vegetables at school too! Review the school menu with your student and join your child for school lunch. You'll be surprised at all the healthy choices!

About the Author
Sandra Ford is the president of the School Nutrition Association, which is based in Prince George's County.

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