Dietician, doctor weigh in on new lunch guidelines
WORTHINGTON -- With the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 requiring changes to school lunch programs across the nation this fall, most students and parents have noticed the slightly lower calorie caps, the bigger push toward fruits and vegetables and the restrictions on protein and grain portions.
However, the food adjustments have been easier for some kids to stomach than others.
"The menu seems more limited, and for picky eaters, that can be a problem," observed parent Shawnna Krause. Krause's daughter, a student at Worthington High School (WHS), is on the autism spectrum; her mother said she used to rely on the former daily offering of bread and peanut butter if she didn't like the main entrees.
Others have commented that athletes, and larger or more active students, are simply not satisfied with the amount of food they receive now, despite the fact they are welcome to return for as many servings of available fruits and vegetables as they wish.
"Students can have unlimited fruits and vegetables," confirmed Michele Hawkinson, District 518's food service director.
But are the federal guidelines completely off-base?
Not according to two local professionals who collectively have years of experience with kids and food.
"As a practicing pediatrician, I often talked to kids and parents about what constitutes a healthy diet, and the school lunches didn't necessarily always reflect that," said Dr. Lisa Gerdes, a former pediatrician at Avera Worthington Specialty Clinic and the parent of two school-age children.
"It's definitely good they are doing more to encourage kids to eat fruits and vegetables, but I notice there is a big difference between what the littler kids like, as far as seasonings and things the cooks use to make the vegetables more palatable, and what the older kids like. Palates develop as you get older, so what may appeal to those in the upper grades may not to the younger kids."
Gerdes also shares a concern that the focus on total calorie count may detract somewhat from the broader consideration of nutritious diets.
"Overall, I'd be happier if they encouraged healthy eating rather than just sticking to a strict calorie count," opined Gerdes. "But as Midwesterners, some of the comfort food we've grown to love may not be appropriate on a daily basis.
"That being said, it's not wrong to occasionally have something special and a little more fun."
Gerdes also notes that Worthington's diversity presents some challenges, diet-wise.
"Depending on people's backgrounds, the idea of unlimited yummy food can be very tempting, too," she said. "It is good to have healthier options available, because when there are things like celery sticks and ranch dressing out, people take and want them, so limiting ourselves only to the unhealthy things is not the way to go.
"You can't ban all unhealthy foods, but the healthier choices should also be there."
Consistent with opinions heard in the community so far this school year is this observation: "The older you get, the more ingrained you become in your patterns and habits," Gerdes said. "So the kindergarteners starting out eating lunches like these will be more accustomed to them as they get older, and there will likely be fewer complaints."
Greta Farley, a registered dietitian at Worthington's Hy-Vee store, concurs.
"It's good to develop a taste for healthy foods at a younger age, and I think this new program is more widely accepted at the elementary schools than at the junior and senior high levels," Farley said.
"It can take a kid up to 12 times to try a new food and accept and like it, so there's more time for the younger students to be exposed to the fruits and vegetables, but in the teenage range, they've already decided what they don't like, so they would rather grab donuts -- because they like them," she added.
"Teenagers appreciate having the choice of what to eat, and so less choice is another battleground," Farley said.
A former high school athlete herself, Farley believes the new federal calorie caps are adequate for the average student, but she remembers the days of six-mile runs after seven hours in school.
"Those kids may need more for their workouts, but it is an option for them to bring snacks," Farley said.
Farley's top choices for portable snacks that student-athletes could easily throw in their backpacks to consume just prior to sports practice -- or right after, when they're "starving" on the way home -- would be string cheese ("That wouldn't need to be refrigerated all day," Farley assured), healthy snack bars (she likes Kashi bars), beef jerky or a homemade trail mix made with nuts, whole-grain cereals and dried fruit.
"That can add quite a few calories for athletes," Farley assured.
The tried-and-true peanut butter and jelly sandwich is also a go-to choice.
"That's easy to pack, and not hard to put together on a whole-grain bread," she said.
For students heading home, but still hungry before supper, Farley suggests Chobani Greek yogurt for kids ("It tastes great, and they can just grab it out of the refrigerator," she said), 100-calorie packs of popcorn ("The fiber will fill you up and is healthy -- just don't get the ones slathered in butter," she cautioned), some nuts, a homemade trail mix or a bowl of whole-grain cereal with skim milk.
"For kids, one of my favorites is Kashi cereal, from the Hy-Vee Health Market, because it's all whole-grain and comes in a lot of choices," Farley said. "Fruits, of course, are great snacks, and to add a little protein they can dip an apple or banana in a bit of peanut butter or almond butter."
To sustain kids until they make it to the school lunchroom at mid-day, Farley has two quick-and-easy breakfast ideas: again, the ubiquitous peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole-grain bread, maybe paired with a banana or other piece of fruit, or a breakfast parfait made with Greek yogurt, fruit and whole-grain cereal (she likes Kashi Go Lean, a granola-type cereal).
Farley hears lots of comments and opinions from parents, and she said some complain about "the government deciding what kids should eat," she reported.
"But school lunches have been around since the 1940s, and the government has always had a say in what can be served," Farley reminded. "Sure, schools can choose to serve what they want, but then they don't receive federal funding to supplement their food costs.
"These new guidelines are a positive thing because they reinforce with kids the goal of trying new foods, and more fruits and vegetables," she added.
Both Farley and Gerdes agree parents can do much to influence their children, and together they can find ways to nutritiously supplement school lunches if their children need more calories.
"If parents have negative reactions, so will the kids," assured Farley. "Trying new foods is not an easy thing, but I think the school lunches are heading in the right direction.
"I also know change is hard for everybody, and there will be people who aren't going to like it, but it is a change that needs more time for students and parents to get used to."