The 14,300 students served by the public school cafeterias in Lee's Summit, Mo., have delicious yet healthy options.
Among the menu items are fresh watermelon, fresh carrots with low-fat ranch dip, baked chicken nuggets, chilled (frozen) strawberries, low-fat mashed potatoes with non-fat gravy, and pizza with whole grain crust and low-fat cheese. They even enjoy roasted, shredded pork sandwiches with homemade whole grain rolls dressed in a low-sodium barbecue sauce--perhaps no surprise for a district that resides in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
"We're educating them through the meals we provide," says Jane Hentzler, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition services for the school district. The healthy fare, she says, is designed to teach the schoolchildren about the proper ratio of nutrients and how to create balanced meals with the best ingredients available.
Hentzler's approach, which also includes classroom lessons on nutrition, is part of a nationwide trend that aims to increase access to minimally processed fresh food at school. The alarming rate of childhood obesity has prompted the reformative strategy at school districts across the country; 12.4% of children ages 2 to 5 are overweight or obese, as are 17% of children and teens between 6 and 19. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, kids who are obese in their preschool years are more likely to be obese adults and have higher chances of developing hypertension, asthma and diabetes.
In Pictures: 8 Ways Parents Can Help Their Children Make Healthy Choices
Yet, healthier school fare is only one part of a successful equation. Arguably more important is the role parents play in teaching their children about nutrition and making healthier choices.
In that respect, parents have more help from school cafeterias than ever before.
A recent report produced by the School Nutrition Association, a lobbying and membership organization of 55,000 food-service directors, caterers and manufacturers, found that more schools offer healthy options.
In a survey of 1,200 food-service directors, nearly 60% reported that they currently provide or are considering offering local fruits and vegetables. Since 2007, vegetarian options have increased by 12%, and low-fat prepared and packaged foods have increased by 11.5%. More than 90% of those surveyed said their schools provided whole grain items and salad bars or pre-packaged salads.
*Respect Likes and Dislikes
*Appeal to Their Interests
*Talk About Nutrition
*Be Mindful of Hidden Calories
The shift partly has to do with changing student demand and local and state wellness initiatives. This fall, Congress will also determine whether or not to increase funding and institute national guidelines for the Child Nutrition Act, which is renewed every five years and spends $12 billion annually to feed breakfast and lunch to 31 million schoolchildren.
Cathy Schuchart, staff vice president for the SNA's Child Nutrition and Policy Center, says that more uniform guidelines will help food manufacturers, who often try to accommodate different local and state regulations by making several versions of the same product, become more efficient. Extra cost-savings, says Schuchart, will allow providers to focus on incorporating higher quality but more expensive items like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains.
Though major strides have been made in providing more nutritious food to schoolchildren, more work remains. The NPD Group, a market research company, has found differences between what children ages 6 through 12 eat when their lunch is packed at home versus when it is bought at the cafeteria.
Though kids who dine on cafeteria food are most likely to enjoy milk, a sandwich and fruit (in that order), they also frequently eat pizza and French fries. Children who bring their lunch from home are most likely to pack a sandwich, fruit and a salty snack. Cookies are popular in both groups, but kids with home-packed lunches are also likely to bring yogurt and crackers.
The differences between the groups demonstrate what is obvious: Mom and dad have some sway when it comes to healthy eating. In fact, NPD's research has also shown that children are most likely to receive guidance on healthy eating from a female parent, followed by the school and then from a male parent.
"Modeling is so important," says Kerry Neville, a registered dietitian in Kirkland, Wash., and spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "I see so many examples of parents saying one thing and doing another." A diet-soda drinking parent who asks a child to fill his or her glass with milk, for example, will meet resistance.
Neville also recommends that parents stock the house with healthy choices and make them visible, which may seem intuitive but is an often overlooked step. While making dinner for her 9-year-old son, Neville places carrots and dip and a fruit basket on the counter to steer him toward nutritious snacks.
Setting guidelines and monitoring a child's diet can provide structure, but Neville says the line between being watchful and policing is thin. She allows her son to have just one treat a day, whether that's a soda or cupcake and gently reinforces the rule when she can. Neville also reviews the school lunch menu with him and asks about his favorite items so that she's aware of his choices and can help better inform them when necessary.
Instead of aiming for perfection, Neville tries for consistency so that her son is regularly exposed to healthy options.
"It really is tough," she says. "The best you can do is to make sure they eat healthy when they are under your control."