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January 25, 2012 | 2 minute read

Lunch Lessons: New School Meals Promote Better Eating

When children learn to play piano or tennis, they need to actually put their fingers on the keys or pick up the racket and swing. Just telling them how to play won’t translate into a sonata or a good backhand.

Adopting healthy eating habits is no different. It requires practice at school as well as at home. And because many children eat breakfast and lunch at school, the USDA’s new standards for school meals will make a health difference for millions of American children.

As a Registered Dietitian I am thrilled with these new standards. I’ve seen many kids and adults alike learn to like new fruits, vegetables and whole grains when they try them over and over and prepare them in different ways. So, exposure to healthy food at home and at school is one important step toward healthier children and, as they grow into adulthood, fewer cancer cases.

Here’s how the new rules improve school lunches:

  1. The daily requirement for vegetables and fruits doubles.
    1. Previous: ½- ¾ cup per day combined fruit & veggie
    2. New: ¾ – 1 cup vegetables PLUS ½ – 1 cup fruit
    3. Long-term health payoff: diets rich in non-starchy vegetables and fruits reduce risk for oral and stomach cancers.
  2. There is a weekly requirement to include a variety of vegetables.
    1. Previous: nothing
    2. New: colorful veggies (dark green, red/orange) and beans/peas (legumes) must be served and in larger quantities than starchy vegetables (such as potatoes and corn)
    3. Long-term health payoff: Non-starchy vegetables are lower calorie and help maintain healthy weight.
  3. More whole grains.
    1. Previous: whole grains were “encouraged”
    2. New: At least half of grains must be whole-grain rich this year and by 2014, all must be whole-grain rich.
    3. Long-term health payoff: Foods containing fiber lower risk for colorectal cancer and may help with weight control.
  4. Lower calorie milk
    1. Previous: any fat content allowed and flavor not restricted
    2. New: only fat-free and 1% low fat allowed. Fat-free may be flavored, but not low-fat milk.
    3. Long-term health payoff: Low calorie beverages lower risk for overweight, obesity and weight gain.

Parents can now know that their own efforts to encourage healthy eating at home will be reinforced with healthier school lunches. Practice makes perfect.

How did you learn to eat a healthy diet?

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