A Typical Week Of School Your Kids Lunch Tray?

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What mom doesn’t want to raise children with healthy eating habits? But not every parent has the resources or knowledge to provide healthy foods and teach good nutrition. That’s where the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act comes in. That law, passed by Congress in 2010 and recently extended, requires schools participating in the National School Lunch Program to offer more nutritious lunches.

Though some legislators and school nutritionists argue that the laws are too restrictive and costly, recent studies show the program is working. Kids are eating healthier school lunches. And the childhood obesity rate is dropping (although overweight and obesity remain high among children and adults in the United States).

There was some talk this year that the act might be ended or weakened, but the program was financed, with an increase in funding, for 2016. That increase may make it easier for schools to offer healthier choices, with more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

School has been out for weeks, but state and federal officials are hoping school food-service directors and cafeteria workers are spending their summer off testing the likes of butternut squash, bok choy and garbanzo beans on unsuspecting, yet enthusiastic, family members.

The better versed menu mavens are in making such foods appetizing, the better luck they’ll have in encouraging elementary, middle and high school students to embrace such menu items in the fall, as schools take steps toward adhering to the nation’s significantly revamped school lunch program.

New rules, the first issued in 15 years, were unveiled this year in hopes of introducing more fruits, vegetables and grains to students and taking a meaningful stance in the battle against childhood obesity. The rules which will double the daily servings of fruit and vegetables, increase the amount of whole grains, and restrict milk offerings to fat-free and low-fat, among other things require that schools receiving federal funds for breakfast and lunch make sweeping changes to their menus.

The new rules stem from the Healthy, Hunger-Free Act, which Congress passed in 2010. The rules will affect food served in cafeteria lunch lines, and any school that receives subsidies for meals will have to follow them to continue being reimbursed. Districts will receive an additional 6 cents per meal if they meet the new standard.

To help everyone from food-service directors to line cooks grasp the new measures, state nutrition experts in Illinois, Missouri and elsewhere are hosting workshops in which the new rules are broken down and food-service employees can take a stab at crafting menus.

One such workshop Thursday in Edwardsville had participants create meals using a laminated poster of a plate that listed required menu components: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. Participants were challenged to create meals and a week’s worth of menus under the new federal rules and to think outside the lunch box, so to speak, in doing so.

The laminated offerings from which they could choose included that longtime school-lunch regular: canned corn. But menu items also included change-of-pace hummus, avocado and refried beans.

“To me, you are offering a classroom when you open your cafeteria to your students,” Debbie Collins, of the Illinois State Board of Education’s nutrition programs division, said to the gathering of about 50 food-service employees. “Think outside of the most common things they have been exposed to. Don’t feel obligated to expose them to French fries.”

Collins explained to the group that many students are limited in the foods they’re exposed to. Their parents may not have the financial means, education or creativity to find unusual foods that are healthier than what’s plopped on the plates of many kids today, she said.

In hopes of sparking healthy creativity on school menus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has created lists of foods that help meet the new requirements. For example, dark-green vegetables go beyond broccoli and dark-green leafy lettuce; they also include bok choy, kale, mesclun and watercress. And on the starchy vegetable list are cassava, fresh cowpeas, taro and green bananas.

Collins and her co-presenter, Chad Martel, stressed the need to offer new things, served in new ways — but not on the same day familiar favorites are served.

Here’s what French kids in Paris 17th arrondissement (link in French) ate this week, compared to kids in New York City:

DayParisNew York City
MondayArtisanal baguette, pork rib in dijon sauce, turkey ham, mashed potatoes, emmental cheese, appleStuffed cheesy bread, marinara sauce, spinach
TuesdayArtisanal baguette, green salad, salmon spaghetti, yogurt with fruit, apple compoteMac & Cheese, toasted garlic dinner roll, Brooklyn baked beans
WednesdayFresh bread, cucumber salad with cream fraiche, veal sauteed in olives and broccoli, goat cheese, gâteau de semoule fait maison au caramelAvi’s Burger-ito, baked french fries, kale salad
ThursdayArtisanal baguette, tomato, onion and coriander salad, organic beef sauteed in its juice with delicate green beans in parsley, fromage à pâte molle, pearChicken & broccoli, veggie fried rice, crispy egg roll with duck sauce, fresh apple
FridayArtisanal baguette, omelette with potatoes, salad of carrots, tomatoes and corn, fromage à pâte fraiche, apple crumblePizza (garden veggie), Jamaican Patty, fresh tomato salad

The French take a different approach to food from a very young age, says Karen Le Billon, author of French Kids Eat Everything.

“Nine out of 10 times they’re going to go to what’s familiar,” said Collins, who encouraged the group to try new foods on their own families this summer. She and Martel acknowledged, however, that some of the USDA’s suggestions do seem a bit, well, crazy.

“The first school that serves green bananas in Illinois, please contact me and let me know how that goes over,” she quipped. In coming years, new standards are expected for a la carte food options and vending machine offerings, neither of which are federally subsidized.

Participants at the workshop Thursday peppered the presenters with questions, from how to classify pizza, to whether it’s OK to add a little bit of sugar to applesauce, to how many grams must a whole-grain item weigh to be counted as a whole-grain-rich item. And they listened to concerns, among them that students would turn up their noses at healthy foods, and that some of the foods had the potential to strain school budgets.

“I understand it, and I even applaud it,” Edwardsville School District food service director John Martin said of the new rules. “But you’re talking about radically changing what we’re doing, and it’s concerning. At the high school level, it’s just difficult to do. We’re going to do it, but it’s going to be hard to do.”

Collins and Martel stressed that the coming year would be one of learning, that some requirements would be phased in, and that details of some of the new rules had yet to be worked out. After discussing the finer points of a rule that requires high school students to walk away from the lunch line with a fruit or vegetable on their trays, a cook for the St. Elmo School District wondered aloud what it would take for the students to actually eat such items.

“I’m at the high school, and the kids never take vegetables or fruit,” Penny Koontz said. “And now they have to take one or the other. So maybe they’ll try them. And that’s good news for us moms. If our children get healthier choices at school, they will acquire a taste for those foods, and they’ll likely make smarter food choices throughout their lives.

While I will admit to having the occasional box of sugary cereal in the house when my kids were young, my husband and I always tried to emphasize home-cooked meals, with few processed foods and plenty of fresh produce and whole grains.

Our kids grew up loving all kinds of fruits, vegetables and whole grains and still generally prefer a fresh pear to pudding and whole-grain bread to white bread. Unlike a couple of our former presidents, they love broccoli and do not consider ketchup a vegetable. They enjoy good, healthy food, which helps them maintain a healthy weight.

The Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act attempts to help all families achieve that and it appears to be working. Initially, some school nutritionists argued that kids wouldn’t buy school lunches if they couldn’t get their favorite white dinner rolls (who doesn’t remember those fondly?) or hamburger on a white bun or pizza on a white-flour crust.

Last October, the School Nutrition Association and the School Superintendents Association wrote to Congress complaining that schools did not get enough funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the increased costs associated with the new standards. The recently approved $625 million increase in funding for the Child Nutrition Program should help.

The nutrition group also requested changes they argued would improve meal participation rates, such as relaxing the whole-grain requirement. This year’s congressional action again extends exemptions to schools demonstrating a hardship from the whole-grain standards and holds off on further tightening of salt restrictions until more research is available.

While political and nutritional debates continue, school lunches are getting healthier. In a four-year study at three middle schools and three high schools in an urban school district in Washington state, researchers from the University of Washington’s Nutritional Sciences Program found a significant increase in the nutritional quality of foods served. They also found a decrease in the energy density of the foods, meaning the items overall have fewer calories per gram and, thus, are less fattening.

“We found that the implementation of the new meal standards was associated with the improved nutritional quality of meals selected by students,” said study author Donna Johnson in a HealthDay article.

In a report published Jan. 4 in JAMA Pediatrics, Johnson and her colleagues wrote, “These changes appeared to be driven primarily by the increase in variety, portion size and the number of servings of fruits and vegetables.”

So, are kids eating these healthier meals?

Nationwide there has been an overall decrease in kids buying school lunches, but that trend began in 2007-2008, before the new standards were adopted. The decline was primarily among kids who paid for school lunches, rather than those who qualified for free lunches, indicating the drop-off was likely linked to the recession, rather than nutrition, according to a report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

In the Washington state study, meal participation stayed about the same, declining only slightly from 47 percent before the updated guidelines to 46 percent after the changes took effect in the 2012-2013 school year. The researchers noted that their study only looked at what foods the students selected not necessarily what they ate.

However, another study found that the amount of plate waste has not changed since meal changes were introduced. If more healthy foods are on the plate and plate waste hasn’t increased, then kids are probably eating more healthy foods, Johnson said.

Most of us are still learning about nutrition and making adjustments in our diets. The answer may not lie in total banishment of white flour or counting grams of salt and sugar. It may be more of an overall approach to eating moderate portions and including more fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins in our diets. The newly released Dietary Guidelines for Americans offer this sort of balanced approach to a healthy diet.

Similarly, the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act encourages schools to provide more nutritious lunches to more than 31 million students a day. That’s a good education. The habits our kids learn when they’re young can help them live longer, healthier lives. And that’s what we all want for our children.

More Different Kid-Friendly Veggies

Get your picky kid to start trying (and yes, loving) vegetables in just one month. We’ve got a brilliant week-by-week plan for delicious but easy side dishes that will have your child asking for more.

Week One: Make Familiar Veggies More Fun

Cucumber Ribbon Salad

Trim the ends off a medium cucumber, then cut it in half crosswise and peel into strips. Whisk 2 tablespoons rice vinegar, 1 tablespoon canola oil, 1/2 teaspoon toasted sesame oil, 1/2 teaspoon honey, salt, and pepper. Toss the dressing with the cucumber and some toasted sesame seeds.

Sunny Broccoli

Steam 3 cups broccoli florets for 5 minutes. Toss with 2 tablespoons orange juice, 1 tablespoon canola oil, 1 clove minced garlic, salt, and pepper. Spoon the broccoli mixture onto clementine slices arranged in the shape of a flower.

Minty Peas

Saute 2 cups frozen peas in 2 teaspoons olive oil on medium for 2 minutes. Remove from heat; add 2 tablespoons fresh mint, 1 teaspoon lemon peel, and a dash of salt and pepper.

Picky Eaters: 3 Ways To Encourage Healthy Eating

Have a choosy eater at the table? Our expert shares simple ways to encourage more adventurous eating while putting a stop to food battles.

Roasted Red Pepper Soup

Puree a 12-ounce jar of roasted red sweet peppers packed in water (drain it first) with a garlic clove. Heat puree, 1 cup low-sodium chicken broth, and 3 tablespoons tomato paste on medium until warm, about 5 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon fresh basil, a smidge of honey, salt, and pepper.

Crinkly Carrot Fries

Slice 1 pound of carrots into 1/2-inch-wide sticks using a crinkle cutter. Toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil, 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme, and 1/4 teaspoon salt. Bake at 400 degrees F. for 15 to 20 minutes, or until soft, on a parchment paper-lined pan.

Week Two: Mix a Veggie Your Kid Likes with Something Different

Mini Vegetable Cakes

Combine half an 8-1/2-ounce package corn-muffin mix with 1 egg white and 3 tablespoons water. Stir in 3/4 cup shredded zucchini and 1/2 cup chopped canned beets. Drop batter by the tablespoon into 2 tablespoons hot canola oil. Cook 2 minutes; turn and cook 1 to 2 minutes more, until browned.

Roasted Veggie Medley

Mix 1/2 pound of tiny potatoes, quartered, and 1 cup small butternut squash pieces. Toss with 2 tablespoons each balsamic vinaigrette and olive oil; roast, uncovered, at 425 degrees F. for 15 minutes. Add red bell pepper pieces and roast 10 minutes more, or until tender. Garnish with 1 tablespoon fresh thyme.

Sweet Potato-Parsnip Mash

Peel and cut 12 ounces of sweet potato and 2 parsnips into 1-1/2-inch pieces. Boil in lightly salted water for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender. Drain and return to pot with 1/3 cup apple cider, salt, and pepper. Mash until nearly smooth.

Fiesta Corn

Saute 3/4 cup each chopped red and green bell peppers in 1 tablespoon canola oil on medium heat for 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups frozen corn and cook 2 minutes more. Stir in 1/2 teaspoon chili powder, 1/4 teaspoon salt, and 1 tablespoon fresh cilantro.

Pumpkin-Peanut Butter Soup

Cook 1/2 cup chopped onion in 1 tablespoon hot olive oil on medium for 4 minutes, or until tender. Stir in a 15-ounce can pumpkin puree, 2 cups low-sodium chicken broth, 1 cup water, 1/4 cup peanut butter, 1/4 teaspoon curry powder, and 1/4 teaspoon salt; heat through. Swirl plain yogurt on top of each bowl.

Week Three: Serve Up a Tasty Sauce or Dip

Breaded Asparagus

Dip 8 ounces trimmed asparagus spears first in all-purpose flour, then in beaten egg, and then in panko bread crumbs. Drizzle asparagus with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Bake in a single layer at 450 degrees F. for 10 minutes, or until golden. Serve with honey-mustard dip.

Teriyaki Green Beans

Cook 3 cups (24 ounces) frozen whole green beans according to package directions. Drain and toss with 2 tablespoons minced shallots, 2 tablespoons light teriyaki sauce, and 1/4 cup toasted slivered almonds.

Butterfly Salad

Use a small cookie cutter or scissors to cut a butterfly shape from firm whole wheat bread. Brush both sides lightly with olive oil; toast for 2 minutes, or until crisp. Divide 4 cups torn lettuce, 1 cup halved seedless grapes, and butterfly croutons among plates. Offer dressing on the side.

Honey-Glazed Carrots

Boil 1/2 pound of peeled baby carrots in lightly salted water for 5 minutes; drain. In same pan, melt 1 tablespoon butter on medium; stir in 1 tablespoon honey and 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger. Boil 1 minute while stirring. Fold in carrots and 1 tablespoon Italian parsley.

Cheesy Spaghetti Squash

Place half of a 2-1/2-pound de-seeded spaghetti squash, cut side down, in a baking dish with 2 tablespoons water; cover with wax paper. Microwave on high for 10 to 12 minutes, or until tender. Let cool slightly, then scrape strands from squash. Toss with 1 cup pasta sauce and 3 tablespoons shredded Parmesan cheese.

Week Four: Try Something Totally New

Cauliflower “Popcorn”

Toss 3 cups small cauliflower florets with 2 tablespoons olive oil and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Roast at 450 degrees F., uncovered, for about 20 minutes or until lightly browned, stirring once or twice. Sprinkle with 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese.

Bacon Brussels Sprouts

Boil 12 ounces of brussels sprouts, trimmed and halved, in lightly salted water for 5 minutes. Meanwhile, saute 2 slices turkey bacon in 1 tablespoon canola oil on medium-high heat. Remove the bacon and crumble. Add cooked brussels sprouts to the skillet; cook 2 minutes. Stir in bacon, salt, and pepper until heated. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon red-wine vinegar before serving.

Curried Acorn Squash

Place 1 pound of acorn squash wedges in a covered dish with 1 tablespoon water. Bake at 375 degrees F. for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, mix 1/4 cup reduced-sugar apricot preserves, 1/2 teaspoon curry powder, salt, and pepper. Spoon apricot mixture over squash and bake, uncovered, 10 minutes more, or until tender.

Citrusy Edamame

Cook 2 cups fresh or frozen shelled edamame according to the package directions; drain. Toss with 1 tablespoons olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon finely shredded orange peel, 1/4 teaspoon dried dillweed, and 1/4 teaspoon salt.

Greek Stuffed Mushrooms

Bake 12 mushroom caps, with the smooth side up, at 425 degrees F. for 5 minutes. Saute 1/2 cup chopped mushroom stems along with minced garlic in hot olive oil on medium heat until tender. Remove from stove; stir in 1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs, 1 chopped fresh Roma tomato, and 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese. Fill caps with mixture and bake for 8 to 10 minutes more.

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