At five lunches per week, a substantial portion of a child's diet comes from the school cafeteria. Since 1980, obesity rates have doubled among children and tripled for teenagers [source: McKay]. This means that the calories they get from meals at school are more important than ever. In an era of super-sized portions and empty calories, school lunches can go a long way toward ensuring your child's nutritional needs are met as well as setting them on the road to good health. Many schools have improved their menus, but some of the food available still isn't the best for your child. Let's take a look at the top 10 worst foods in school cafeterias.
Many parents probably remember the days of "mystery meat" on school lunch menus, which meant sawing through a Salisbury steak with a plastic spork. This main dish was a staple in cafeterias everywhere, and was usually covered in gravy and served with buttery potatoes and french fries. It's no wonder that these breaded steaks of unknown origins are no longer on many modern school lunch menus. But what is on the menu is irradiated meat. Irradiation is a process that treats food with radiant energy, like x-rays and gamma rays. It kills germs like E. coli, which can cause serious or even deadly illnesses in kids. In the U.S., the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved irradiation as a way to make foods safer to eat [source: FDA]. Critics, on the other hand, claim that the process makes food less nutritious, changes its taste and could have negative health effects down the road. A better plan, according to irradiation opponents, is for schools to go with better sources of meat and use better cooking techniques, which is often more expensive. The resulting controversy makes irradiated food a contentious addition to school lunch menus.
Schools have come a long way from the days where just about anything could be dropped into a vat of oil, but the deep fryer is still a reality in many underfunded school districts. Deep fried chicken fingers and french fries are high in calories and fat and low in nutritional value. Fried foods are also usually higher in sodium, and saturated fats, also known as trans-fats, are a big reason why the obesity rate for kids has doubled since 1980. Grilled or roasted meats are a better option, and many schools are opting to serve oven-baked french fries now. If your child's school still uses the deep fryer, advise him to hit the salad bar instead.
Vending Machine Snacks
While many schools have cleaned up their act in complying with tighter federal regulations on school lunch nutrition, vending machines are still a fixture in schools all over the country. These machines that sell candy bars and chips make it all too easy for your child to eat these items at will, sometimes in place of their lunch. As more schools make the shift to healthier snack items, encourage your child to skip the empty calories of candy and choose more nourishing options. Vending machines stocked with whole wheat crackers, granola bars and fresh fruit bars are becoming more common, which hopefully will help children make better choices.
Sweets and Desserts
President Jimmy Carter put standards in place nearly 30 years ago for nutritional requirements in school lunches. Unfortunately, the fat, calories and sodium contents weren't regulated. These days, some schools offer doughnuts and cookies, and others have ice cream carts in the cafeteria. Desserts in the lunch line are full of sugar, empty calories and fat. Encourage your kids to avoid overdosing on sweets at school. Keep their desserts and sweet treats limited to dinnertime where you can monitor the amounts that they're consuming. Pack fresh fruits for your kids to take to school to help fight the sweet tooth.
You kids may love them, but sodas are responsible for more empty calories than anything else they put in their body. Sodas are loaded with sugar and high fructose corn syrup, plus they contain phosphorus, an ingredient that can deplete calcium levels in growing bones. There's been a movement to have machines removed or stocked with diet sodas only, but many schools still provide a supply of sugary sodas and other bottled drinks that are full of sugar, such as some fruit juices and sports drinks. It's best to regulate the amount of soda your children drink at home and encourage them to drink water, low-fat milk and fresh fruit juices at school.
It was the gasp heard 'round the country when celebrity chef Jamie Oliver began his recent health crusade against chocolate milk. It's confusing, no doubt: Shouldn't something with "milk" in the name be good for you?
Yes, it should. But it turns out adding the chocolate flavoring is a game changer. The beloved childhood (and beyond) drink has as much sugar in it as soda. We probably shouldn't single out chocolate here, though, since strawberry milk has the same teeth-rotting, fat-building effect. Rather than flavored milks, which are being removed from an increasing number of school cafeterias throughout the United States, steer your child toward the plain stuff in either low-fat or skim form. They need the calcium, not the added sugar.
All pizza is high in fat (especially the saturated kind) because it's loaded with cheese, but that's only part of the problem. Pizza simply doesn't contain a whole lot of nutrients. There's plenty of fat, sodium and carbohydrates; and while some school boards consider pizza sauce to be a vegetable, most health experts beg to differ.
Still, it gets worse. Pizza topped with pepperoni leads the list of slices you probably don't want your child eating for lunch. Pepperoni adds even more fat, and evidence has shown that eating a lot of cured meats (and processed meats in general, in fact) may contribute to increased cancer risk.
Plain-old bread and cheese, which defines the typical cheese quesadilla you find in the cafeteria. In addition to the high fat and sodium contents you get from all that cheese, flour tortillas are notoriously high in calories and low in nutritional value. A typical one can have more than 300 calories (equal to about three or four slices of bread), most of which comes from fat and carbohydrates.
If your school is offering whole-wheat quesadillas instead of the white-flour kind, that's a plus -- but a fairly minor one when weighed against the downsides of basing a meal on cheese.
More junk food than actual meal, nachos take the high-fat, high-sodium content of cheese, process that cheese further to make it extra-smooth and even less nutritious, and pour it over a pile of chips -- fried, fatty, empty-calorie chips.
To make matters worse, the schools that still serve this menu item often do so with the addition of low-quality, processed beef. A serving of beef-and-cheese nachos contains more fat and saturated fat than is recommended for your child's entire meal, and it can provide 50 percent more sodium than an impressively high-sodium quesadilla.
Meat(loaf) and Potatoes
The all-American meal of meat and potatoes, while filling and potentially nutritious, can be a nutritional disaster in the hands of an underfunded school district. When the "meat" becomes "meatloaf" (read "filler") and the potatoes become a buttered, powder-derived pile of high-fat carbs, this old cafeteria standby becomes one of the highest calorie meals on the menu.
It also offers another health no-no, especially for kids: cholesterol. With approximately 80 grams per serving, the meatloaf meal supplies up to a third of the maximum amount of cholesterol a child should consume in an entire day.
To avoid the potential health pitfalls of school lunch, you can always pack it yourself. But don't worry: Your baby needn't skip a meal if she leaves her brown bag on the kitchen counter. While it may sound grim, these 10 items are just a small sampling of the meals being served in cafeterias around the country. Lots of schools have taken on healthier standards and offer plenty of lower-fat, higher-nutrition options; and even those that haven't yet pulled it together often have at least a few healthier options available, such as fruit, granola bars and green salads. It's all about making good choices.
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
- Brar, Deepi. "How Many Calories Are You Drinking?" ahealthyme.com, 2009. http://www.ahealthyme.com/topic/drinkcalc
- "Cancer and food." Better Health Channel. (Dec. 31, 2011) http://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/bhcv2/bhcarticles.nsf/pages/Cancer_and_food?open
- "Consumer Reports Conducts Largest Test of its Kind to Bring Consumers the Truth About Irradiated Meat." consumersunion.org, July 8, 2003. http://www.consumersunion.org/pub/core_food_safety/000211.html
- Fischler, Marcelle S. "No More Mystery Meat." boston.com, Oct. 7, 2006. http://www.boston.com/news/education/k_12/articles/2006/10/07/no_more_mystery_meat/
- "The Five Most Unhealthful School Lunches." Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Spring 2010. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.pcrm.org/search/?cid=49
- Gardner, Amanda. "School Lunches Too Fatty and Sugary, Critics Say." (Health Day) Chef Ann Cooper. March 4, 2009. (Dec. 28, 2011) http://www.chefann.com/blog/archives/1113
- "High Cholesterol in Children." WebMD. (Dec. 31, 2011) http://www.webmd.com/cholesterol-management/guide/high-cholesterol-children
- Mckay, Gretchen. "School cafeteria lunches are getting better and better." post-gazette.com, Sept. 13, 2007. http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/07256/816995-34.stm
- Philpot, Tom. "Time to reinvest in the school-lunch program." grist.com, Sept. 27, 2007. http://www.grist.org/article/cookin-it-old-school/
- Shepley, Dan. "School Lunch Nutrition Standards Haven't Been Updated in 30 Years." thedailygreen.com, March 6, 2009. http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/latest/school-lunch-junk-food-47030601
- "USDA Issues Final Rule on Meat and Poultry Irradiation." usda.gov, December 1999. http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Oa/background/irrad_final.htm