It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to see what’s offered in the average school cafeteria isn’t health food, but many schools are coming up with healthier alternatives to the classic burger, pizza and chicken patty. In fact, government-funded school lunch programs have to follow certain nutrition standards, and many states are layering on even more rigid rules requiring healthier school lunch choices, mainly in response to obesity rates that have tripled in children and adolescents over the last two decades.
Changes for the better are underway in many school cafeterias, but most still have a way to go. Many school menus are dominated by chicken nuggets/cutlets, French fries, cheese-drenched pizza, greasy cheeseburgers, hot dogs and overcooked vegetables you wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. Healthier choices like veggie burgers, salad bars and stir-fried vegetables are increasingly being added to the menu – which may take a while for students to adjust to. But 89 percent of high schools also sell food and beverages from vending machines and school stores – the most common being sugary drinks, chips, cookies and snacks cakes. Some states have started to regulate these “other foods,” banning those with little or no nutritional value, like soda (at least during lunchtime). You need to have a certain amount of calories every day, but regardless of what’s going on at your school, the ball is ultimately in your court. Your parents may suggest what to eat but they can’t follow you to school. Skim the following suggestions to see if there are a few adjustments you could make in your usual school lunch.
- Make decent – not necessarily perfect – choices. Cafeteria choices vary widely depending on the budget your school has to work with. The best you can do is to consider your options and keep an open mind. Is there a baked alternative to the usual fried foods? Can you work some fruits and vegetables into your lunch, even if it’s only canned fruit or carrot sticks? Is there a smaller bottle of whatever – soda or sweetened – beverage you’re drinking? While we all can probably site the nastiest example of what your school cafeteria offers, there are likely at least one or two healthier, not so bad tasting options on the menu.
- Don’t assume you’re going to hate everything new that’s offered on the menu. At least take a look before you rule it out. Maybe even buy it once. You never know – you just might like it.
- Look for fruits and vegetables. Take advantage of the salad bar if your school has one. Look for fresh fruit. There’s usually a cooked vegetable on the menu somewhere, too – maybe stir-fried vegetables or peppers and onions in a fajita. Even asking for lettuce and tomato on your sandwich is a step in the right direction.
- Trim the fat. The real killers on the menu are the French fries, nuggets and patties, and the cheese over-kill – on the pizza or burger, or in the mac and cheese. Adding vegetables to the plate and asking for a smaller portion of the fatty item will cut some unnecessary calories. Choose turkey or ham over bologna and salami at the sandwich counter. Have one slice of bread (preferably whole grain) or half a roll if you’re having chips with your sandwich. Look for baked or 100 calorie packs of chips.
- Beware beverages. The average 20-ounce soda has the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar. Even large bottle of 100 percent fruit juice likely contain more calories than you need. Add to that the fact that liquid calories don’t contribute to the feeling of fullness and you have a recipe for lunchtime calorie overload. The healthiest choice is milk. Choose 1 percent or skim milk – 2 percent is almost as fatty as whole milk.
- Look for calcium. Intake of this important nutrient – which is important for strong, healthy bones – drops a ton in the teen years. Good choices are 1 percent or low-fat milk, low-fat yogurt and reduced fat cheese.
- Watch your portions! Assume that the portion you’re being offered is likely more than you should eat unless you’re having a very active day.
- Consider condiment calories. Using mustard and ketchup at 15 calories per tablespoon, instead of mayonnaise at 100 calories per tablespoon, saves a chunk of calories that just don’t net much on the nutritional side of things. Regular salad dressings, particularly the creamy ones can be 150 to 200 calories per serving (and that’s only 2 tablespoons!) . Instead use healthier, low-fat dressing (more likely to be in the 30-100 calorie per serving range) and try not to drench your salad with it. Salsa is also a good option at only 10 calories per 2 tablespoons.
- No bad foods – just bad diets. Follow the 80/20 rule – if what you eat is reasonably healthy 80 percent of the time you can include those higher fat and sugar foods you like the other 20 percent. Make a deal with yourself to make one day per week “anything goes” day. It may help you feel less deprived.
- Don’t just complain – make suggestions! Ask the Food Service Director what might be possible. Ask the culinary teachers if making healthier alternatives could be a school project.
A Farm to School lunch program connects schools with local farms to provide healthy cafeteria food while also supporting local farmers.
This article was reviewed by BodiMojo expert Deborah Rohm Young, Ph.D.