When students sit down for lunch this fall, they may notice a few changes to the school menu. New nutrition standards went into effect July 1 due to the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010, championed by first lady Michelle Obama.
One of the main goals of the new nutrition standards is to curb obesity among children nationwide. The standards will increase portion sizes of fruits and vegetables, as well as limit sodium and fat.
Dr. Cheryl Peters, a registered dietitian from the St. Helena Center for Health, said she agrees that schools need to serve more fresh fruit, like watermelon and strawberries.
“Kids will go more for fruit than veggies, so I’d push the fruit,” Peters said.
Fruit salads, smoothies and all-fruit popsicles make healthy desserts and can be high in antioxidants, which protect against disease, she said.
Certain fruits — including oranges and grapefruits — contain complex carbohydrates, which nutrition experts say are key to keeping up energy levels and stabilizing blood sugar. Complex carbs also include whole-grain cereals and breads that are high in fiber, as well as low-fat yogurt and skim milk.
Katie Cornwall, a registered dietitian with Kaiser Permanente, said it’s not about how much food is consumed — it’s about eating the right kind of food.
For kids with small appetites in the morning, Cornwall suggests half a piece of toast with peanut butter and banana slices. And for kids who don’t like traditional breakfast foods, Cornwall said a whole-wheat tortilla with turkey is a healthy way to start the morning.
Some of the key things for parents to watch out for are foods and beverages with too much sugar — including orange juice. Kids should have real fruit rather than juice, Cornwall said.
Under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, some controversial food items — like pizza — will remain on school menus. But some nutrition experts say that parents should give pizza a chance.
“Pizza gets a bad rap,” Cornwall said. Depending on the amount of sugar in the tomato paste, pizza is not a “bad” food, she said.
Tomatoes and tomato-based products contain the antioxidant lycopene, Peters said. And if the pizza has a whole-wheat crust — which is required under the new rules — it’s even better, Peters said.
Cornwall said it’s important for parents to know that lunch doesn’t have to be perfect. A lunch can contain a variety of healthy snack foods, just so long as it gives kids enough fuel to get through the day.
To help kids eat their vegetables, Peters suggests offering fresh vegetables instead of frozen — and using peanut butter or hummus for dipping.
“You have to figure out ways to make it attractive,” she said.
Peters said kids today are much more informed about nutrition than in the past, and she hopes the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act will help them make smart choices.
Kids “don’t want to be fat,” Peters said. “Let’s empower people.”