Schoolchildren Having Lunch in Cafeteria Together

Do School Lunches Provide the Nutrition Your Child Needs?

Team General Dentistry

If you’re like most parents, you probably figure your child’s school lunch isn’t exactly the best when it comes to nutrition, but that it’s not the worst either since it’s required to meet government guidelines. Generally speaking, this is an accurate take, but what you may not know is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture has been moving the goalposts, allowing schools to serve less healthy foods and still meet USDA standards. Since dental health and overall health are intrinsically linked, we want to share what this means for your child’s school lunches.

Recent Changes in School Lunches

Setting aside political beliefs, you probably remember First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiatives to help schoolchildren eat better and be more active. As part of these efforts, the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, implemented in 2012, updated school lunch program guidelines based on the most current science and recommendations from pediatricians and nutritionists. These changes were popular and successful, but despite this, they’ve been reversed under the current USDA leadership. 

Why? Because they want to serve kids foods they like, not foods that are good for them. (This, despite the fact that the USDA’s own research shows that schools with the highest healthy food standards have the most participation in lunch programs.) 

Here’s what this means in practice:

  • Under the old guidelines, schools were required to serve only healthy whole grain breads and pastas. Now, only half of the grains served in school lunches need to be whole.
  • New guidelines allow school lunches to contain more sodium—even more sodium than recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.
  • High-sugar flavored milk drinks are allowed back in the cafeteria, putting dental health at risk.
  • Under new proposed rules for 2020, standards will be cut even more, as the amount of fruits and vegetables served is reduced, and allowance for selling pizza, burgers, and fries is increased.

Children may still be able to choose a side of fries or an apple, but given the choice, most kids are going to choose the fries. With kids eating five or more meals a week at school, these choices can be detrimental to their health.

Nutrition for Growing Bodies—and Teeth

You’re undoubtedly familiar with all the ways good nutrition supports our health. Calcium ensures strong bones, vitamin A helps our eyesight, and healthy fats are good for our brains. Nutrition is also critical for dental health. Too much sugar creates the conditions for oral bacteria to flourish and tooth decay to form. Not enough calcium isn’t just bad for bone health, it’s not good for your child’s teeth either. A balanced diet for children should include:

  • Fruits and vegetables – at least half of your child’s food should be produce
  • Healthy whole grains
  • Dairy – preferably low-fat or fat-free
  • Lean proteins – including meat, plant-based proteins like beans and peas, fish, and eggs

What You Can Do

Many of the changes to school lunches fly under the radar. Now that you know the facts, share this post with other people you know. Building awareness is the first step to creating real change. Nutritious school lunches are a bipartisan issue that most of us can agree upon.

If your child eats lunch at school, talk to him or her about making healthy choices, and set a good example at home by serving balanced breakfasts and dinners. If time allows, consider making a lunch to send your child to school with each day. While it’s hard to compete with pizza and French fries, involve your child in picking out foods they like and make it fun—make mini fruit skewers on toothpicks or use cookie cutters to cut sandwiches into shapes.

Learn More About Nutrition and Teeth

If you’d like to learn more about how nutrition impacts dental health, contact us today to schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric dentists.