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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
Feb 21, 2017

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

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Janet O'Dell
Sep 28, 2012

Good standard and very important to the physical and mental health of our society.

Sep 28, 2012

I am a school nurse. How does the school lunch program provide for an afternoon snack? They come to the nurse hungry in the afternoon! HELP!

Rick Shafer
Sep 28, 2012

So glad to hear that you are finally doing this. This should go a long way to help solve the child obesity problem, & also to increase the overall health of children today. Don't let the nay-sayers bully you into reversing your decision. Keep up the good work. Thanks, Rick Shafer

Tanya Fields
Sep 30, 2012

You really need to back off the whole we know what's best for you attitude. You are doing more damage to our children with your "healthy" guideline bull than you are good. My children eat the way that I did when I was growing up and they are no where near overweight. I make them go outside and play instead of sitting in front of the t.v. or video games. If you really want to change things, start promoting ways for families to get their children outside. For example, come up with a reward system that kind of works like the grocery stamp things did. If they go out to approved places for exercise, playing, etc. they will earn these little stamps that they can save up for special things like a bike, skateboard, roller skates/blades, etc.

Rebecca B.
Sep 30, 2012

My question is if my child is in athletics and is made to be at school by 6:30 am for practice and either practices or plays a game after school and is of course losing a very high amount of calories. How is this calorie cut affecting the athletes meals at school? How can they get a nutritious breakfast and lunch at school to cover the calories they burn?

Oct 01, 2012

Rebecca: Student athletes and others with higher caloric intake requirements are always welcome - and encouraged - to bring additional food to supplement the meals provided at school.

As the blog post states, "...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."

Renda Cole
Oct 03, 2012

I have the same question as Rebecca B asked, but I also want to know if I am correct in saying that, as a District Manager over a school cafeteria, we are providing a healthy lunch for the cost on average of $2.50. The amount of food is equal to the amount you are paying. As someone who can see the business end of this, if the students wanted more food because they are burning more calories, then they have the option of purchasing ALA CARTE items. Also, as a parent, if my child has something they are doing before, during or after school and I feel they are going to be hungry, I feel it is my responsibility not the schools to make sure my child is properly fed to reach his/her goals for the day. I think to many parents are relying on the schools and government to handle the cost. I also belive that the new guidelines may be difficult, but if you look at how Americans eat today, the amount of sodium, the amount of food, we eat until we are full and then some. We as a nation have to ban together and tighten our beltstraps to help our children learn what we were not taught when we were children. The days of meat and potatoes with butter, salt, and koolaid are over. That is what I grew up on I am 29, and would really like to see my children eat healthy at school and at home.

anna santana
Oct 03, 2012

I completely agree with Tanya Fields. This whole must regulate what kids eat in school on federal level is completely overboard. The USDA needs to seriously BACK OFF. Our schools had better food & more choice last year. This year my daughter is begging for cold lunches from home rather than eat a hot lunch in school. & forget about breakfast - she won't touch it because it's gotten so bad.

There are different ways to promote healthy children than dictating the amount of calories & what can be served by schools at meal time.

Liz R
Oct 03, 2012

So this is not really new to my daughter's school. Nice hot lunch with a vegetable and/or fruit available or a well stocked fresh salad bar. We are lucky, that has always been the way her school works. What concerns me is the low calorie requirement. Seriously, they have to get through an active day and grow at the same time. I know some schools aren't as fortunate, but what is the real goal? Have to wonder about under nourishment.

Calgary Photographer
Oct 04, 2012

Dr. Robert, thank you for this great and informational post on children's nutrition.
I can't agree with you more kids need great nutrition to concentrate in school because we all know about the rampant rate of obesity in children both in Canada and the US. This would tie in nicely with the mandatory exercise programs that many schools are now implementing the combination of nutrition and exercise would definitely make a difference in the health of our next generation. I also believe it would make a big difference in how well our children learn in school and in their self-confidence.

As a Calgary Photographer I photograph children all the time.
I can't tell you how many times I have photographed families with obese children and I shake my head as I believe it is the parents responsibility to ensure their children grow up to be healthy adults.

I hope you don't mind if I send some traffic to your blog post as I believe other parent should read this. Once again Dr. Robert great job.

Ancil C.
Nov 05, 2012

My son will no longer eat the food provided in the school lunches. He only will eat a peanut butter sandwich, a pack of crackers, and some sweet item (cookies, cake, etc.), and drink a juice box.

By no means is the new lunch menu providing my child with a balanced diet, only the things he likes to eat are in his lunch bag, never trying anything new.

Thanks Federal Government for stepping in somewhere else you don't belong!

Susie J.
Jul 09, 2013

My children will also no longer eat/purchase food from the school cafeteria or vending machines.
Diet sodas are laden with chemicals and additive that are detrimental to our health. I would rather my children drink regular sodas!
TruMoo? Really? Milk with sugar added? What happened to "normal" milk? And milk is also laden with growth hormones and antibiotics.
Processed food contain harmful nitrates and bisulfites. Wheat bread is high in sugar (and regular white bread) and contains other harmful chemicals.
What is so healthy about this crap you are slopping on my child's plate? These kids need clean protein, clean fruits and veggies! Their brains need these!
I feed my children natural/organic foods and cringe when I see the menus for school lunches.
The government needs to stop regulating what MY children should eat! The word "healthy" is confusing for me because what you are serving and allowing is NOT healthy!