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Ask a School Meals Expert: What do the New Calorie Standards Mean for my Child?

Posted by Dr. Robert Post, Deputy Director, Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion in Food and Nutrition
Sep 28, 2012

You may have heard this year’s back to school season is a little different than in past years. There is a new, healthier look for the school lunch menu.  These updates represent the first major changes to school meals in 15 years, and we know that these changes come with questions.  We’ve promised to keep the dialogue open, and we are working to ensure that we answer them all.

The vast majority of students, parents, teachers and school service professionals have had great positive feedback on the new, healthier lunches.  However, a few parents have expressed concerns that kids will come home from school hungry or not get enough to eat during the day because their kids have higher caloric needs – in particular, kids who are athletes. Schools and families have – and have always had – multiple options for addressing their needs.

The new school lunch provides 1/3 of the average daily calorie needs for kids by age. Some highly active students, like athletes, may need more calories, but it is important to remember that calories do not necessarily equal food. Some foods, like certain vegetables and fruits, can be eaten in larger amounts than others for the same amount of calories. Getting more nutrition for the calories consumed and staying within our calorie needs is the key to good health.

Under the new standards, children can eat lots of fruits and vegetables, which are low in calories but high in nutrients. Schools can offer larger portions of these great foods as a way to fill kids up with healthy food while staying within the calorie limits. A second carton of milk may also be an option.

School lunches are only a part of what students should eat in a day.  In addition to the National School Lunch Program, the School Breakfast Program provides nutritionally balanced breakfasts, helping America’s schoolchildren start the day ready to learn. If students don’t eat breakfast at school, we recommend they do so at home.

Schools can also provide an afterschool snack through the school lunch program, or a snack and an evening meal through the At-Risk Afterschool Meals component of the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP).   Certain elementary schools can provide nutritious snacks during the school day through the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. Individual students and/or sports teams can continue to supplement food provided through federal programs with healthy food provided from home or other sources.

Check back here frequently as we continue to answer questions about the new and improved school meals. Also, please don’t forget to check out the web site we created to help folks understand the meal changes and how they make the school day healthier.

Category/Topic: Food and Nutrition