If you’ve been dismayed by what your kids get for lunch at school — foods with too much sugar and fat — you’re in for a surprise this year.
Improvements in the National School Lunch Program went into effect over the summer, and school lunches are being served this year with an eye on calories controls appropriate to age groups, less fat and more whole grains, fruits and vegetables.
For example, students have to be offered fruits and vegetables each day of the week. Dairy products have to be low-fat or fat-free. Lunch foods with all-white flour are being switched for those made with some whole grains to boost fiber for better heart and digestive health, says Kristina Adams Smith, spokesewoman for the Illinois Dietetic Association and director of medical weight management for Sarah Bush Lincoln Health System.
Kids may barely notice the difference on some switches they may be getting, for example, whole grain pizza crusts and pastas, she said.
Some changes that went into effect:
— Grains: Half of the grains in school lunches need to be whole grain rich, and by July 1, 2014, all grains will have to be whole grain-rich, meaning whole grains are the first or second ingredient listed on the label, Adams Smith said.
— Dairy: Only 1 percent or fat-free unflavored milk or fat-free flavored milk is allowed.
— Fats: Saturated fat must be limited to 10 percent or less total calories on average over the course of the week, helping reduce total cholesterol, Adams Smith said. No added trans fats are allowed.
— Sodium will be gradually reduced in three phases by age group between 2014 and 2022. It will drop 50 percent from current school lunch guidelines.
There will be a range of calories allowed per lunch, varying by age group, and this can be averaged out over the school week, Adams Smith said.
For children in kindergarten-through-fifth grade, the range for lunch is 550-650 a day. For kids in sixth-through-eighth grade, it’s 600-700 calories a day, and for teens in ninth through 12th grade, it’s 750-850.
Adams Smith urges parents packing kids’ lunches to also make some healthful switches, for example, whole-grain pretzels for chips, and to serve low-fat dairy and whole grain products and less processed foods at home.
The National School Lunch Program is a voluntary federally-assisted meal program that operates in about 95,000 public and private schools and residential child care facilities. Participating schools get cash subsidies and donated commodities, but have to meet federal requirements and offer free or reduced-price lunches to eligible children.
If you don’t know if your child’s school participates in the National School Lunch Program, Adams Smith suggests asking your local school district.