Confessions of a Dietitian: the school food edition

I’m going to first start off by saying that we love our daycare.

As a working mom, I definitely feel like I miss out on this precious, fleeting times while my child grows, learns, and changes so quickly. With that being said, we are very fortunate where LEM goes to daycare- or camp, as we call it.

We love her teachers. And she does too! She is happy to go there each morning and will even lean out of my arms and into the arms of her lead teacher. When we receive reports at the end of the day, they share that she is a happy and well behaved little lady.

As a dietitian and a mommy, I probably have higher standards of what I’d like for my child to be offered to eat with meals and snacks. I would do it a certain way at home and I wouldn’t expect any different outside of our home. So with that being said, I probably would also be frustrated with the menus no matter when my child attends school.

I shared recently that LEM has some recent food preference changes and while this may be a phase of toddler independence and control, I am partially blaming the food environment she is in during most of the day. Let me take that back, there is really no need to blame anyone. But hopefully by identifying some areas of improvement,  we can help to make changes in the food served to children in our schools.

To start, there are many federal and state laws that schools must enforce in attempt to make sure the kids they feed are well nourished. However, they are falling short of truly offering the best for our children; at least in my expert, professional, and personal opinion.

Here are 7 things that frustrate me with the food served to children in education settings:

  1. They are offered refined, enriched, processed carbs.White pasta, white rice, grits, pancakes, pasta, no matter what the meal is, it’s not the most nutrient dense or fiber rich option.
  2. Most {at least half} of the snacks they are offered are higher in sugar, empty carbs, and calories. Gold fish crackers, vanilla wafers, saltines, blueberry muffins, bars, cookies,  and gold fish. There are some mommy-dietitian-approved options like fruit, cheese, and yogurt on the weekly menu, but the not-so-liked options stick out in my head first. =)
  3.  The protein options often consists of high saturated fat meats. Whether it’s jambalaya, beans, spaghetti, tacos, etc. all the recipes are using the higher fat 80/20 cut of ground beef. Sometimes there are turkey alternative options for items that include sausage, which we do make a note on her menu to please provide that instead, but I’m not confident of the follow-through.
  4. Some of the leaner protein options are processed and breaded. Think a chicken sandwich can be healthy? Sure! But my default would be a grilled, thin chicken breast, not a breaded (most likely frozen) chicken patty. Chicken nuggets have also made the menu as well. And a vegetarian option of cheese pizza is a weekly staple. Of course, my child loves it, so even though it resembles a personal pan Pizza Hut pizza, I decide this is not the battle to pick.
  5. They are offered juice with snacks. I shouldn’t have to say more, but there are some that still think fruit juice is a healthful option. It’s not. Period. It’s liquid sugar devoid of fiber. So please eat your fruit and not drink juice. I also feel it teaches you to drink something flavored, rather than be able to simply drink water.
  6. You need a doctor’s note in relation to food preferences.  At our daycare, I can say things like “no juice, please” and we don’t need a note, but other places do require one.  I don’t mind getting a note, but when our physician’s note isn’t good enough, then I’m upset. We couldn’t bring homemade food when she was younger unless she had an food allergy, intolerance, or religious preference, but a healthy, fresh, homemade meal, no that doesn’t count even with a doctor’s note?! The state regulations stipulate that it’s because of food safety, fine I gotcha, but parents should be able to sign a note to say they will not sue the school if their child gets sick for something they brought from home. Also, don’t give me the excuse that other kids will eat it, because I’m not responsible for other children as they shouldn’t be eating my child’s food anyways. I could go on and on with some of these rants so I’ll stop now. You get the idea. I caved on this battle a while ago because there are healthful store bought baby food even those aren’t as fresh and textural as what she ate at home when she first started eating. And now, here’s the kicker, she doesn’t eat solid fruits and veggies right now,but prefers the pureed fruits and veggies. I wonder how this started? Could it have been avoided if I didn’t feel stuck with having to give into buying baby food pouches?
  7. You feel like the obnoxious, annoying parent when you have special requests. I really don’t feel that bad any more especially after talking with other RD-mommies, but there are still times where I feel like we are “inconveniencing” the staff and that we are the “problem” parents when it comes to food. For example, we leave plain whole fat yogurt as a snack option for LEM when the menu doesn’t have milk, cheese, or fruit on the day’s menu. But because the other kids in her class wanted her yogurt, they had to conceal hers in a separate container which they are not allowed to do. My husband came home to tell me this one afternoon and I just rolled my eyes and brushed it off. They can deal. She’s getting her yogurt. End of story. I don’t care how they figure it out.

Note: Not all schools may conform to these standards of food offered, and some may have more lenient special accommodations, but from the informal research I’ve gathered from talking with other moms in the city of New Orleans, this is a pretty good consensus of what’s offered and served. In fact, our particular place is pretty healthful compared to other places in NOLA, but again, I have those higher standards, especially when I truly believe schools can and do want to accommodate these healthful requests.

There even are a few things that the schools do well. For one, they offer a fruit and/or a veggie with each meal {our camp offers both with lunch which is great!}. Additionally, those fruits and veggies aren’t canned and the cooks do not add any salt when cooking.

Even though I’ve laid out a list of things that I see as “wrong” with the system, making a few simple changes would help to resolve most of these concerns.

  1. Switch from enriched, processed white carbs to 100% whole grains. A simple ingredient swap. Same recipe just one easy product change.
  2. With the slight budget increase that will probably take place from the above request, instead of picking traditional snack items, keep it simple with fruit, veggies, or yogurt. You’ll get in more nutrients and it’s teaching kids what healthful snacks should look like. Goldfish, vanilla wafers, cookies, and bars are not something we should be eating every day or every week. This would include nixing juice from the menu. If kids are offered milk with meals, water is a perfectly healthy and hydrating option to accompany snack time.
  3. Switch from high fat proteins to lean options. I don’t need you to offer fish {a lean super healthy fat type of protein, but pricey} to my child, I’ll do that at home with our evening and weekend meals. But please don’t select breaded, frozen meats from your food service provider. Take the little extra time and work to freshly bake or roast the proteins {think simple baked chicken rather than reheating chicken patties or nuggets}.

I’m not complaining about our specific daycare, but rather giving personal examples and hoping this sheds light to law makers what the personal and professional recommendations would be from experts in this subject matter. The daycares and schools are just following rules and regulations set out for them to function under their budgetary constraints. I get that. So it’s up to us concerned parents to make a change.

photo credit: sweetgreens

If you are passionate about this, please share this with friends and family! Or maybe even pass it along to your legislature? Who knows, maybe it’ll reach Michelle Obama?

Let’s change what the American school food plate looks like! Let’s make it more colorful and nutritious like the meals offered around the globe. If you haven’t seen this article original posted from Sweetgreen’s tumblr, then you should take a look to see how we measure up.





2 responses to “Confessions of a Dietitian: the school food edition”

  1. If they are serving white rice, pasta, etc. then they are NOT following the regulations. Grains need to be 100% of what is being served – pizza, biscuits, donuts, pasta, rice, grits, sliced bread, hamburger and hot dog buns. Yeah….and a lot of that is going in the garbage because most parents are not RD. Now they are talking 80/20 on the grains but no guidelines have been given.

    I hear what you are saying, but go work in a school and follow the regulations and their budget. It isn’t easy and keep in mind, most parents no longer cook meals from scratch.


    • Lynne, thanks so much for sharing! Yes, I’ve talked with them about the whole grains (or lack thereof), and they have said “it’s in progress.” That was 9+months ago… so hopefully it will be in effect soon. I’d love to work in the schools, especially to work with the regulations and budget. I totally understand how challenging it can be! You’re right!


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