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School Lunch (Part 1) : Do You Know What Is In Your School Lunch?

I honestly had never thought about this question “Do You Know What Is In Your School Lunch?”, and I was surprised when I found out the answer. A few weekends ago I had the pleasure of attending the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference held in Denver, Colorado.  The purpose of this annual conference is for school cafeterias nationwide to sample healthy new foods, innovative recipes, and learn methods and tips to strengthen their school meal programs. Two bloggers and I were able to experience this tasty conference ourselves and learn about school lunch nutrition.

I went into this experience with little expectations because I wasn’t 100% what to expect in the first place. I knew that the topic was that of our school lunch nutrition and a new legislation. What I took out of this was amazing information that has changed my way of thinking about school lunches. In fact it has motivated me to want to learn more about our own lunch program here in my county. I was very fortunate to be under the wing of an amazing woman Mary Kate Harrison the General Manger of Student Nutrition Services in Hillsborough County. I could tell that Mary Kate takes pride in her job and makes it her mission to feed our children healthy yet tasty food while still staying within a budget.

If you looked at your school menu and saw pizza, chicken nuggets, Asian food, Cuban food, etc. what would you think? You would probably wonder why we are feeding our children such junk food. Yes the menu usually includes veggies and fruits but we know our children usually go for the main dish and push those veggies aside. Would you be surprised if I told you that the majority of these foods are more then likely made with healthy ingredients. That a piece of pizza isn’t your typical Dominos or Pizza Hut pizza?

One of the biggest changes in nutrition standards in the National School Lunch Program is taking place this very school year.

USDA’s New Meal Plan (Nutrition Standards) for School Meals, effective July 2012.

  • Establishes maximum calorie and sodium limits for meals (sodium limits are phased in over 10 years)
  • Requires schools to serve larger portions of fruits and vegetables. Students must take at least one fruit or vegetable serving per meal. Schools must offer dark green vegetables, orange/red vegetables and legumes at least once a week.
  • Within two years of implementation, all grains offered to students must be whole grain-rich.
  • Requires milk to be 1% or nonfat (flavored milk must be nonfat).
  • Schools must eliminate added trans-fat. Less then 10% of calories can come from saturated fat.

I absolutely LOVE LOVE that schools are being required to start phasing out white grains and switch to whole grain-rich food. I am such a firm believer that whole grains are healthy and really help control appetite. One of the first company’s Mary Kate introduced me to was The Schwan Food Company and Pat McCoy, Vice President of Sales. Pat was amazing and full of energy and you could tell he was excited to share with me his story. Pat walked me through the process in which he and Mary Kate went through to create a pizza that was not only healthy but appealing to the kids. I had no idea how important each element was and as they explained it I could only think what an amazing job the two of them have, and how excited they are about it.

Mary Kate explained to Pat that she need a pizza that was healthy, but also one kids would WANT to eat. Basically give me pizza delivery pizza, with added health benefits. The Schwan Food Company created a pizza with whole grain crust and low sodium pizza sauce and instead of the usual “school squares” he created a round pizza, to mimic delivery pizza. After some back and forth it was then discussed that the pizza was meeting the health standards but the employees had no way of cutting the pieces evenly. One would think that was not a big deal in less that one has more then one child, then they know EVEN is a huge deal. Equality is important among children.  So Schwan’s then created a metal pizza cutter that is placed over the pizza and pressed to cut each piece into equal pieces. The pizza I saw on the floor looked like a pizza I would find in a cardboard box delivered right to my door. Exactly what Mary Kate was after. She wanted a pizza that when kids saw coming from the oven, or back door and served up to them looked like the school was serving pizza from the local pizzeria down on the corner. This pizza is currently served in many of the schools across the country.

I was so amazed by what goes into school lunches the thought, the planning, every little detail, that I forgot to take a lot of photos. I did manage to snap a few photos of some food that at first glance thought there was no way this was an average school lunch. However that is what the vendors at the School Nutrition Association Annual National Conference were presenting. They were there to show you how they have taken the new standards and meet the requirements with their healthy yet appetizing and appealing foods and try to convince you to use their product in the National School Lunch Program.

We saw drink vendors, vegetables, themed food like Asian and Cuban. We saw an amazing apple slicer that I would love to have in my own home however it was industrial size and really would not match my decor. The experience was amazing and I learned more in that one day about what my children will be served this year then I have in all my years of having children in the school system.

Please look forward to another post coming soon with more fun information on how these recipes are created and “who” are the judges of such food.

Were you surprised to learn about the new standards in the school lunch program? Does your child partake in school lunches? After reading this post what are your thoughts about your child eating school lunches?

Disclaimer: My traveling expenses and trip to the conference was paid for by the representing pr agency. Opinions are my own and NOT influenced by monetary compensation. You may read more of my disclosure here.

About Colleen Shibley

Colleen Shibley Mother to 3 kids, wife to an awesome & thoughtful husband, beach lover, book reader, working woman by day, and blogger by night. Blogging from sunny South Florida passionate about travel, good food, entertainment, and enjoying family time...[Read More...]


  1. It’s good to see some healthy changes!

  2. Last year, when I saw the menu, I called the school. They explained it to me.

  3. I remember what the lunches were like when I was in school – that square pizza, hamburgers, hot dogs – that’s all I remember, really – oof, they were not nutritious at all!

    It’s fantastic to see there are changes being made – childhood is *the* time to establish healthy eating habits.

  4. It was really interesting to read all of this information. I hope our local schools make some changes. We don’t let our daughter buy lunch. I don’t agree with their thoughts on what is a balance lunch and what they are counting as veggies/etc.
    Being in Kindergarten last year, Grace didn’t fully understand not buying lunch when so many other kids did but she did understand packing her lunch and what was a balance lunch. Not teaching the kids what is part of a balanced lunch/meal is major downfall to the school lunch program right now.
    Maybe one year, I will let her buy lunch but it won’t be this next year.

    • Your local school would have to make changes if they were not complying as this is a national legislation passed to take effect this very school year July 2012.

      I think part of the problem is parents are not being informed. For example if I saw on the menu a plate of pasta, veggies, fruit I would ask where is the protein? In speaking with Barillo (that make pasta) they have created a pasta that includes the protein/meat requirement for lunches so your child is getting what is required.

      In addition no visiable veggies does not mean your child is not getting them, some are cooked into the food and you and they are not aware.

      I would love for the school system to send this information home with parents this year it was an amazing and informative conference.

      • I hope there are improvements!
        I do wish it was more fresh food and not frozen/processed (protein added) foods and education around the balanced meals though.

        As for information going home, that would be great too! Last year, we had a flier that came home telling us our packed lunches weren’t as healthy as the school lunches. That wasn’t the right message to send home either!

  5. I’m so happy about this. Because, my son doesn’t want to pack his lunch from home, and now I feel better about it. :)

  6. My son loves buying his lunch – one of his “favorite” meals is graham crackers and yogurt – FOR LUNCH.

    I’m loving the healthy changes!

  7. Honestly, I hated eating hot lunches at school. I thought they were disgusting and wouldn’t buy them. So I’d be STARVING at the end of the day.

    I am still picky. LOL. But when I went to college, there were more options at that cafeteria that I could stand. I loved treating myself to subway back then.

    Now my son goes to Private school and they actually order in each day from different vendors. Not as healthy, I think, as what you experienced. But at least more variety and options and healthier than most typical school lunches. But I pack for him daily, except on Fridays when I let him order pizza.

  8. school lunches have come a long way!

  9. Canadian Mom Blogger says:

    That’s great! I live in a small town, so the kids have to take their lunches rather than having access to a cafeteria. Sometimes I think that’s better…than I know exactly what their choices are.

  10. Wendy T says:

    Well, I was not surprised to learn about this. I work in the school food service department and we had a district-wide meeting in the spring to educate us about this. I think this will look much differently in ten years, which is the intent of the phasing in of the program. Right now, especially for high school students (which is where I work), I expect there to be a lot of backlash initially.

    I’m a bit intimidated by having to tell the students they must take the vegetables. I will be a broken record in explaining why for the first couple of weeks. We were also told to expect there to be an initial dip in the number of lunches served, as students show their displeasure. Given them a month or two, and hopefully they’ll be back around.

    The pizza we serve is from the pizza place down the street. I think there business is going to go up significantly. They will be the winners of this plan.

    Now, all that being said I think (personally) we can look at this two ways. We can look at it is as being a good adjunct to what may be being done at home already. Or, we can look at it as why doesn’t the school concern themselves with educating children on curriculum and leave food choices to the parents. I think it’s another example of Big Brother butting in far too much.

    • It is nice to hear from someone in the business. My son is in high school and his school too services pizza from a local pizza place.

      It was mentioned that these guidelines only pertain to the National Lunch Program and not to the a la cart items which in our school the pizza is a la cart.

  11. Jo-Ann Brightman says:

    I am delighted to learn more about the improved school standards for nutrition.

  12. shaunie says:

    I wish there were better school lunches that do not contain bad ingredients for our children

  13. It’s about time! I remember when ketchup was considered a vegetable, so I’d send my son to school with a bag lunch. So glad to see the changes happening.

  14. I would love to see changes like this all over! It would be nice to feel okay, that my kid is eating a school lunch!!

  15. Jake is 15 so I only hope he makes healthier decisions when choosing his lunch meals. I know he said most of the food is pretty gross or greasy.

  16. Michelle says:

    I am glad to see a push for change. For many kids, the most complete meal they eat is school lunch. I’m happy to see it will be more balanced and heart healthy. I wonder if they spoke about the exercise or recess issue?

    • No they did not, the conference was centered around the nutrition/lunch issue only.

      I will say that every year when they talk about talking PE, and the arts out of school I cringe. They don’t even have PE every day like we use to but every 4th or 5th day but in elementary school they do have recess each day so for that I’m thankful.

      In our middle and high school PE is a full year extra you can chose to take, my boys love PE so they have taken it each year, in fact my high schooler took weight training last year.

  17. looks like you learned a lot and had a great time in Denver! :)gina

  18. Momicles (Ashley) says:

    So happy to hear this. Keep us all posted.

  19. Rhiannon Rowland says:

    My son Jeremiah was telling my last year about his lunches at school and I was quite disgusted. He said most of the fruit they got was over ripe and he wouldn’t want to eat it. They would have chicken nuggets and he would get four of them (quite astonishing to think about when he is 6’4 and 14) I don’t think I would be happy with four of them either. He loves vegetables and most of the time would eat what they offered, but my younger son will not, so I wish they would offer the kids more than one option for a veggie, for a picky eater. These changes cannot come quickly enough!

  20. I would love to know what is in my school lunches. Most of the time they serve pizza or microwave food.

    • That should not be the case this year since they have to follow the new rules. Don’t get me wrong I’m not saying they can’t serve microwave food, however whatever they serve is suppose to follow the guidelines I’ve posted above.

  21. Carrie with Children says:

    I am thrilled to hear about all the new changes coming to school lunches. My girls aren’t in regular school yet, but I look forward to seeing what types of foods are served when they do start school.

    It sounds like this was a great conference to become educated on such an important issue. Look forward to hearing more about your trip. (That apple slicer you mentioned sounds pretty cool, too!)

  22. I’m pretty happy with our school lunches. I’m not sure if it’s because we live is a well off district, but the school serves whole grains and organic ingredients in all their meals.

    • Mary Kate did say that some schools have already been following these guidelines and are doing a good job at providing the healthier foods. Glad to hear your school is dong well.

  23. That looks like a really good lunch! I’m so glad they are changing things, and the less-fat milk is a wonderful idea!

    • I agree. I know “flavored” milk is a topic of interest but I personally am for it but non-fat is my choice. At home we purchase low-fat chocolate milk for my son. I would rather him drink that then juice or soda.

  24. This was such an informative post. My kids eat school lunches about twice a year, when I give in to their begging for it! Though our district has a wellness policy, I don’t think it does much for lunches. My kids are always hungry when they get home and I cringe when they tell me what they ate.

    • I suggest you talk to your school and see if they can give you any information regarding what is IN the lunches as this is suppose to be the guidelines for all schools, it only applies to the National Lunch Program and not the a la carte entrees. Which we only have in Middle and High school in our area.

  25. This is very interesting.. my little guy starts his last year of preschool this year and I wonder how school lunches will be when he starts elementary school!

  26. We home school so in a way, yes he does get school lunches, but the lunch lady is mom.

    It is almost scary the things they feed to our children. I love this initiative and hope that soon all schools are involved.

    • I know when we were browsing the food I kept thinking my school lunch didn’t look like this LOL.

      However all schools are REQUIRED to adhere to these guidelines starting this year that was part of what of the legislation that was passed. I really think the issue is that parents don’t realize when they see pizza or chicken nuggets on the menu that they are made in a healthy way.

      I now want to visit my daughters school this year to take a photo of the lunch and see how they are doing LOL.

  27. I’ve always been a huge advocate of bringing lunch to school so we can control what our kids eat, but it’s good to know there are healthier options on the way for those days when they don’t bring lunches (and let’s face it, if the kids want to buy lunch, they’ll buy it anyway, lol. I know I did that more than a few times when I was in school.)

  28. Pretty cool! I am so glad they are doing something to make lunches better for our children!

  29. Kasandria Reasoner says:

    I’m so happy to see this. My kids eat school lunches so this hits home for us. All those that you took pics of actually look APPETIZING instead of just slop.

  30. Wow that sounds great! I am so happy to hear that the school are taking a serious look at nutrition in schools.

  31. I wish we had lunches like that when I was in school.

  32. One of the best ways that schools can make their food healthier for students is to serve whole grains! There is so much more fiber in whole grains, and I believe taste so much better than the white products!

  33. Sherry Compton says:

    Love the idea but hope it doesn’t go to far. I love that schools are having to pay attention to fat content and adding fruits and veggies. I want kids to still be able to have treats and sugary/fatty items sometimes but to realize that main meals need to be nutritious. We eat not just to satisfy but to be healthy. So happy schools are now addressing this.

  34. I am amazed. I have to look into what they serve here in Texas.The kids food is always so stale and even if its a burger, you will see a majority of kids throw their food out. But the food you’ve photographed does look good!

  35. jennie hosselkus says:

    I appreciate your positive blog on a very important subject. I have been in school nutrition for 24 years and I have always done my best to feed the children healthy, nutritious meals. There is always some waste in school lunch because, as you said if you have more than one child, you can’t please everyone all the time. The new nutrional guidelines have been a headache this year for myself and my co-workers but we having been working very hard to make menus that are not only nutrious but also that the kids will want to eat. As we were told in our state convention this summer, “we will have happy garbage cans this year, because the kids will just not eat everything that is expected to go on their trays.”

  36. I really enjoyed your write up! I also attended the SNA show. The energy was great. It’s so fun & refreshing to see new menu items. Definitely a step in the right direction.

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