The school year is well underway and your best laid plans for coordinated family schedules, home-cooked dinners together and a bag lunch packed from home have evolved to an acceptable level of managed chaos.
Time is short and usually double-booked.
One thing you don’t need to worry about is your child’s lunch. The nutrition she gets at school will be just as good, if not better, than the bag lunch you were planning to send.
“Many parents aren’t aware of the nutritional content of what’s on the menu at their child’s cafeteria,” says Mary Fell, director of School Nutrition Services at Alum Rock Union School District in San Jose, California.
Fell explains, “Many of these are familiar and favorite foods for children and if you read the fine print, you’ll see they’re packed with a variety of powerhouse nutrients that they need, are lower in sodium and have 0 grams trans fat per serving.”
Chef Mark Ainsworth, nutrition expert and professor at The Culinary Institute of America (CIA), explains that school meals must meet the rules established by the USDA, which specify how many proteins, whole grains, sodium and fats are on the menu. Calories are set, as well. “I believe it’s actually more nutritionally balanced at school than it would be at home, unless mom or dad is a nutritionist or dietary expert,” says Ainsworth.
“In San Jose, each of our meals align with USDA guidelines,” says Fell. “We know children eat with all of their senses - especially sight, smell and taste. We focus on the full experience, understanding the flavors and foods they like, to make their lunch a fun and nutritious break in their days.” Fell explains that her colleagues across the country are committed to similar goals. “We’re in this line of work because we care about kids and their nutrition.”
Parents may be surprised to learn a school lunch of mandarin oranges, a green salad with reduced calorie dressing, a slice of whole-grain crust pizza, like Big Daddy’s (R) Primo Cheese Pizza from Schwan’s Food Service, and a cup of nonfat milk, has comparable nutrients and 35 percent less sodium than a bag lunch with a turkey and cheese sandwich on whole wheat bread, carrot sticks, a medium apple, one ounce of multigrain chips and a cup of nonfat milk. Whole grains, calcium, protein and potassium are star ingredients in both lunches.
The essentials of whole grains
Whole grains are an important source of dietary fiber and also provide B-vitamins and essential minerals that help keep kids healthy. A diet rich in whole grains can help to lower the risk of many chronic diseases such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. They also help to provide a feeling of fullness.
The notable nutrients of potassium and calcium
Potassium and calcium have both been named “nutrients of concern” for children because research has shown their diets are often lacking these important nutrients. Potassium ensures normal heart and muscle function, maintains fluid balance and plays a role in promoting strong bones. Calcium is important for strong bones and also plays a role in blood clotting and muscle function.
The power of protein
Protein is a cornerstone of a child’s diet, supporting growth and development. Considered a building block for muscle and collagen, protein also helps to transport other nutrients in the body.
Companies like Schwan’s Food Service have worked to reduce sodium in their pizzas by incorporating sea salt in the crust and sauce, as well as adding herbs and spices, to enhance the flavor and the nutrition of this favorite food.
“We’re excited to share with parents the facts about our school meals,” says Fell. “It’s a great way for us to make kids smile and hopefully minimize the stress to pack those bag lunches.”