School Lunches Just Got Healthier

As you prepare your child or children for school with new clothes and school supplies, your local school districts are also gearing up for the new school year by adopting the recent changes in the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) that went into effect July 1. These changes will improve the quality of the school lunches to ensure better nutrition.

Christina Rollins, MS, RD, LDN, a clinical dietitian at Memorial Medical Center and Illinois Dietetic Association spokesperson, said while she’s always thought highly of the National School Lunch Program, she’s glad to see there are strict guidelines on calories starting this school year.

“There are also many positive changes with the limits on saturated fat and sodium,” she said. “This is going to help improve the health of school-aged children in the future.”

Rollins lists some of the current regulations and important changes in the program:

  • Grains: As of July 1, half of the grains in the NSLP need to be whole grain rich. By July 1, 2014, all grains will have to be whole grain rich, with “whole grains” as the first or second item listed on the ingredient label. This will help promote high-fiber foods in the diet.
  • Calories: There is now a minimum and maximum amount of calories for each grade level for school lunches. These calories can be averaged out over the course of the week. This will assist schools in choosing healthy foods to serve in the cafeteria to meet the calorie requirements.
  • Milk: The only milk products that will be allowed in schools will be 1-percent unflavored, fat-free unflavored or fat-free flavored milk with a choice between two of these products at lunch. This will help promote low-fat and fat-free dairy options, which should be a staple in the meal plan.
  • Saturated Fat: Saturated fat, which comes from many meat and dairy items, needs to be limited to 10 percent or less of total calories as an average over the course of a week. This can help reduce the long-term risks of heart disease and elevated cholesterol.
  • Trans Fat: Trans fats will not be allowed to be used in the NSLP. Labels on the products must state “zero grams of trans fat.” These fats can raise bad cholesterol levels and increase inflammation in the body.
  • Sodium: Sodium levels will be reduced in three phases starting in 2014 and ending in the 2022 school year. This is intended to reduce the sodium levels by more than 50 percent from the current guidelines.

“It is important for parents to continue these healthy behaviors at home,” Rollins said. “Incorporate low-fat dairy and whole-grain products into meals. Serving less processed foods and using proper portion control will also help.”

Not every school is involved with the NSLP, so make sure to check with your local school district if it is partaking in the program.

There is more to come! There will be changes in the National School Breakfast Program starting in the 2013-14 school year, and the USDA is planning on making standards for a la carte foods served in schools.

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