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School Lunch Menu Nutrition

The National School Lunch Program’s mission is to provide nutritious meals to America’s children, especially those from lower income groups. Though in many ways the program has been a success, there is growing concern among parents and doctors about the health of America’s children and the quality of the food provided by school lunches.

The federal government started the National School Lunch Program because it recognized that students who have good nutrition are healthier, perform better in school, and have better behavior than hungry or malnourished children. Though school menus are determined on a local level, they must meet some national guidelines. These include:

  • The lunches must provide one-third of a child’s daily requirements for protein, iron, calcium, vitamin A, vitamin C, and calories.
  • Less than 30% of the calories can come from fat, and less than 10% of the calories can come from saturated fat.
  • The meals must include five items that come from four food groups: liquid milk, meat and meat substitutes (lean meat, fish, eggs, cooked beans or peas, cheese, yogurt, peanut butter, peanuts, or other nuts or seeds), vegetables and fruits, and enriched or whole grains (breads, rice, pasta, etc.).

Schools can use a traditional food-based menu or an enhanced food-based menu, the difference being that the enhanced food-based menu uses more low-fat options like fruits, vegetables, and grains to meet the required calories.

A study conducted from 1999 to 2004 by the US Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service determined some of the nutritional strengths and weaknesses of the National School Lunch Program, and made some general observations about the health of America’s students:

  • Students participating in the National School Lunch Program were more likely to be getting adequate amounts of some important vitamins and minerals than non-participants.
  • Participants were more likely to get enough milk, meat, and beans in their diet.
  • Participants ate more fruit on average than non-participants.
  • Students eating school lunches were more likely to get too much sodium in their diets.
  • Among all students, regardless of participation in school lunches, one third are overweight or in danger of becoming so.
  • Most students, whether they eat school lunches or not, eat too much fat and sodium and not enough fruits, vegetables, or fiber.
  • Teenagers, especially girls, are at greatest risk for inadequate nutrition.

Because schools or school districts choose their own menus, following national guidelines, the nutritional quality of school lunches can vary depending on the school or district. Many schools have a menu that rotates meals throughout the month. This gives students more variety in what they eat. Other schools, especially middle and high schools, may offer al la carte options where the same foods are offered everyday and students can choose what they want. While some students may use al la carte selections to choose a variety of healthy foods, like salads, fruit, yogurt, and healthy breads and proteins, others may choose to have a hot dog and ice cream for lunch everyday.

Schools are constrained by their budget and local food availability when trying to prepare healthy meals for children. Unfortunately, healthy food often costs more. Parents, however, can let school administrators known that they want healthier choices for their children, individually and through the school’s parent-teacher organization.

Some simple ways that popular menu choices can be made healthier include:

  • Offer fat free and low fat milk instead of whole milk.
  • Instead of hot dogs, chili dogs, or corn dogs, serve vegetarian or low fat beef or turkey chili with corn bread or baked potatoes.
  • Make sub sandwiches using low fat meats, cheeses, and condiments and, if feasible, use whole grain bread or make wraps instead of sandwiches.
  • Use low fat beef and cheese for hamburgers and cheeseburgers. Whole grain buns are better than white buns.
  • Pizza should be made with a low fat cheese like part-skim mozzarella and thinner crusts, and meat toppings should be used sparingly or substituted with plain cheese or vegetable toppings.
  • Chicken nuggets should be baked instead of fried, and ideally a low-sodium, whole grain breading should be used.
  • Instead of chips, ice cream, and cookies, offer fruit or veggie sticks, yogurt, and granola. If chips and cookies will be offered, opt for baked chips and oatmeal cookies.

The School Nutrition Association released its 2009 report on school nutrition, and noted several positive trends:

  • Almost all schools offer fat free or low fat milk, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grain items.
  • Many schools now offer salads and yogurt.
  • More schools are serving baked items made from scratch, vegetarian options, and low fat packaged snacks.
  • Many schools are looking for ways to offer locally grown fruits and vegetables, which tend to be fresher and support the local economy.

The best thing that parents can do to encourage their children to eat healthy meals is to set a good example by having healthy foods at home and teach children the importance of choosing healthy foods.


United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, "National School Lunch Program Fact Sheet," [online]

United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, “Diet quality of American School-age Children by School Lunch Participation Status: Data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (Summary),” [online]

Chef Ann Cooper: Renegade Lunch Lady, "The Real Cost of School Lunch," [online]

USAToday, "Vendors Pitch New Foods to Schools," [online]

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, "Healthy School Lunches” [online]

Food Research and Action Center, "Federal Food Programs: National School Lunch Program,” [online]

School Nutrition Association, "School Nutrition Association Releases 'State of School Nutrition 2009' Survey" [online]

Pennsylvania Department of Education, "Food and Nutrition Programs: National School Lunch Programs" [online]

USDA, Menu Planning in the National School Lunch Program [online]