With childhood obesity and diabetes on the rise, it's clear our kids need healthier eating habits. Establishing these behaviors early in life can lead to healthier eating as an adult. And what better place to start learning good habits than in school?
Experts find that many school lunches are too high in cholesterol and saturated fat, and too low in dietary fiber, whole grains and vegetables. However, the days of soggy tater tots and rubbery hot dogs may be numbered. Schools nationwide are working to make more nutritious lunches available to all students. From vegetarian options to using local produce, school lunches are transforming.
Following -- in no particular order -- are our picks for 10 of the healthiest school lunch plans in the country.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, North Carolina
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district consistently keeps things healthy for its students. Vegetarian choices appear on the menu daily, including entrees like black-eyed peas with rice or spaghetti with marinara sauce. Whole-grain rolls round out the meal.
A variety of fresh fruits and vegetable options tempt students as well. A sampling includes fresh squash with onions, apples or tossed salads. The district offers nutrition education on each month's menu, as well as displaying banners in the cafeteria extolling the virtues of healthful eating.
The district puts nutrition education into action with gardens in several of the schools. Not only do the students help maintain the school gardens, but they are also encouraged to take home some of the crops.
Promise Academy, New York City
This Harlem charter school's lunch program includes a wide range of healthy, unprocessed food. Students enjoy from-scratch lunches like turkey lasagna with fresh zucchini, whole-wheat pasta with local squash, or Swiss chard.
The school chef eschews processed cheese and peanut butter, preferring to spend part of the food budget on fresher, local food. As part of their nutrition education, students learn not only how to eat healthier, but also how fast-food chains use marketing tricks to attract children as customers. Food service personnel teach the kids what a healthy portion looks like -- students are not allowed second helpings on main courses, but may eat as many vegetables and salads as they want.
The school also holds monthly "farmer's markets" in the cafeteria, and offers cooking classes that parents and children can take together.
Fairfax County Public Schools, Virginia
Registered dieticians plan all school meals at Fairfax County Public Schools to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The school system also plans to eliminate all trans fat from its lunch menus.
In addition to offering several vegetarian entrees each day, students also have a daily vegan option. Students can choose from fare like hummus, whole grain breadsticks, veggie burgers and salad. A daily selection of fresh fruits and vegetables with dip are also available to students. Nondairy beverages like soymilk are offered as well.
The school district strongly emphasizes nutrition education, highlighting the importance of healthy eating in newsletters and on its Web site in the form of a nutrition calculator. School menus also provide nutrition information on what's offered. Student tasting parties help introduce kids to new fruits and vegetables. Food service also offers classes and cooking programs for students.
Betty Shabazz International Charter School, Illinois
Winner of the 2007 Golden Carrot Award for exceptional school lunch programs, the Betty Shabazz International Charter School in Chicago offers an entirely vegetarian menu. To provide necessary nutrients like iron and protein, school chefs create meals using tofu, beans, nuts and fortified cereals.
Students can choose from meatless, low-fat meals like veggie burgers and dogs, burritos, veggie gumbo with tofu, jerk or curry tofu, beans and rice, collard greens and corn bread. Fresh fruit and garden salads round out the meal.
In addition to the entire vegetarian menu, the school also offers students a daily vegan meal. The cafeteria provides soy and rice milk, as well as juice. The school's science and health curriculum discusses the benefits of a vegetarian diet.
Pinellas County Schools, Florida
The Pinellas County Schools in Florida offer their students a plethora of good, healthy choices for lunch. Menus include a variety of foods -- low-fat vegetarian entrees, an egg- and dairy-free salad and veggie burgers -- to keep students interested.
Fresh fruit, side salads and vegetable side dishes are on the menu every day. In lieu of milk, students may choose fruit juice. Also available are bottled water and soymilk.
Two full-time nutrition specialists assist in running an extensive nutrition education program. Students learn the benefits of fresh fruits, veggies, leafy greens, beans and nuts through activities and farmers market displays. The elementary school kids also benefit from a program that teaches them how to choose more healthy snacks. Some districts even bring in celebrity chefs to work alongside the students to create recipes.
Kenton County Schools, Kentucky
The Kenton County School system is notable not just for its cafeteria menu, but for setting a good example for other schools. Kenton's food service director started small, removing fried potato chips and sugary fruit drinks from the cafeteria. Phasing out vending machines on school grounds was risky, as these machines provide much-needed revenue to schools.
However, in the absence of junk food, students began getting their lunches from the cafeteria line instead of the vending machines. This resulted in increased cafeteria sales and a subsequent increase in revenue. Other schools around the nation are looking at the success of Kenton County as a model for their own programs.
The school strives to offer foods that are kid-friendly but low in fat and rich in nutrients. Popular meals include pizza with a 50 percent whole grain crust and low-fat cheese, baked chicken nuggets and sweet potato fries. The only choices for milk are 1 percent or skim, and fresh fruit and veggies are available each day.
Berkeley Unified School District, California
The Berkeley School District is home to the original "Edible Schoolyard," a concept created by famed restaurateur Alice Waters. Beginning with the Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, several schools in the district planted one-acre gardens on school grounds. Teachers used the garden to teach students about local food, biology, nutrition and science. Students and teachers tended the gardens together during special classes. They learned about different vegetables and herbs by taste testing their harvest. The idea was that if the children were more invested in where their food came from, they'd be more willing to experiment and make healthier food choices.
That hunch was correct. Parents began calling, reporting that their children were requesting things like jicama (a sweet root vegetable) for supper [source: Finz].
Next, the cafeteria banned processed food and began preparing meals from scratch. Food service staff takes care to purchase as much local, organic food and ingredients as possible. Students can supplement their meals with the all-you-can-eat salad bar. Dark, leafy greens like kale and spinach are popular as well.
Montgomery Public Schools, Maryland
This Maryland school district encourages students to make the right choices by offering a wide variety of healthy foods.
The school offers no less than four low-fat vegetable side dishes each day, as well as low-fat salad dressings and baby carrots. Students can choose from several healthy vegetarian options each day, like black bean burgers or "chik'n" nuggets. The district worked closely with the United Soybean Board to incorporate these vegetable-based protein items into their menu. Nondairy beverages are also available.
Like many of the other schools on this list, nutrition information appears in the district's monthly newsletter. Food services offer cooking classes and survey students at all levels on their eating habits and preferences.
Sidwell Friends School, Washington, D.C.
Although it's been around since 1883, the private Sidwell Friends School entered the public consciousness in November 2008, with the election of President Barack Obama. When the Obamas announced their two daughters would attend Sidwell Friends, the world got a look inside the school.
The cafeteria at Sidwell Friends emphasizes local vendors, as well as organic and fair-trade ingredients. It strives for a seasonable approach to meal planning to ensure the freshest ingredients are always available. Food waste becomes compost, which is then used to fertilize school gardens.
The school's list of lunches and snacks reads like a gourmet menu compared to the food in other American schools. Students look forward to dishes like Jamaican jerk chicken wings, plantains, strawberry and arugula salad, veggie chili, basmati rice and tandoori nan. Fresh fruit and salads are also available each day. Vegetarian and gluten-free choices are also offered on a regular basis.
Ross School, New York
The Ross School, a private school located in the Hamptons, New York, works with a dietician to make sure its students have healthy choices. Students in every grade take nutrition classes, as well as learn about food history. Students eat from plates and use metal (not plastic) flatware, bus their own tables and sort their own recycling.
The menu revolves around seasonal, local and organic ingredients. The school also serves breakfast. Sample menu items include steel cut oats, carrot and ginger soup, yogurt marinated chicken, cheese grits, kimchi and grilled fish. Vegetarian dishes are available each day, as well as fresh gourmet salads.
Students even work with local farmers, learning how to plant seeds, harvest and compost. Most importantly, knowing how to cook is a requirement for graduation.
School lunch pictures will show you exactly what your kids are eating during the school year. Check out school lunch pictures and get schooled.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- Adams, Cecil. "Did the Reagan-era USDA really classify ketchup as a vegetable?" The Straight Dope. July 16, 2004. (July 7, 2009) http://www.straightdope.com/columns/read/2517/did-the-reagan-era-usda-really-classify-ketchup-as-a-vegetable
- Black, Jane. "Ky. Schools' Healthy Example Could Shape a National Policy." The Washington Post. June 29, 2009. (July 7, 2009) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/28/AR2009062802929.html
- "Calendar." Sidwell Friends School. 2009. (July 7, 2009) http://www.sidwell.edu/calendars/index.asp?StartDate=6%2F1%2F2009&ModuleID=375&ClassID=&pageaction=ViewPublicBlock2
- Finz, Stacy. "The skinny on school lunches." California Alumni. May/June 2009. (July 7, 2009) http://www.alumni.berkeley.edu/California/200905/finz.asp
- Gavin, Mary L. "Vegetarianism." KidsHealth.org. Oct. 2008. (July 7, 2009) http://kidshealth.org/parent/nutrition_fit/nutrition/vegetarianism.html
- Marcus, Mary Brophy. "Experts: Most type 2 diabetes can be stopped in childhood." USA Today. June 22, 2009. (July 7, 2009) http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2009-06-21-kids-diabetes_N.htm
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "2007 Golden Carrot Award Winners. "Healthy School Lunches. 2008. (July 7, 2009) http://www.healthyschoollunches.org/carrot/07winners.cfm
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. "2008 School Lunch Report Card." Healthy School Lunches. 2008. (July 7, 2009) http://www.healthyschoollunches.org/reports/report2008_intro.cfm
- "School Food Service." The Kenton County School District. 2009. (July 7, 2009) http://www.kenton.k12.ky.us/foodservice/default.htm
- Severson, Kim. "Harlem School Introduces Children to Swiss Chard." New York Times. Sept. 9, 2005. (July 7, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/09/nyregion/09promise.html
- Tarr, Amy and daSilva, Pia. "Part II - A Model That Works." StarChefs.com. Feb. 2005. (July 7, 2009) http://www.starchefs.com/features/editors_dish/obesity/part2/html/index.shtml
- "Wonder What the Obama Girls Are Having For Lunch?" iLunchBox.com. 2009. (July 7, 2009) http://www.ilunchbox.com/articles/wonder-what-the-obama-girls-are-having-for-lunch.php