Fruit, salads and skim milk are all offered at your child's school, but the trick is getting your child to choose them.
Since 1995, steady improvements have been made in school meal programs.
Schools are serving lunch options with more lean meats, lower-fat milk, and more fruits, vegetables and whole grains.
"A good diet is built on highly nutritious foods from each of the main food groups," said Robert Murray, M., FAAP, and lead author of the policy statement, "Snacks, Sweetened Beverages, Added Sugars, and Schools."
"Children, like adults, often want their own preferred flavors and textures during meals and snacks," Dr. Murray said. "It's no secret that brown sugar on oatmeal, or salad dressing with cut vegetables, can make these healthy foods more palatable to children, and increase their consumption. This is not a license to give kids anything they want; we just need to use sugar, fat and sodium strategically."
Dr. Murray discusses school nutrition and how, as parents, it's up to you to monitor your child's school meals.
RadioMD Presents:Healthy Children | Original Air Date: March 4, 2015
Host: Melanie Cole, MS
RadioMD. RadioMD.com. This is Healthy Children brought to you by the American Academy of Pediatrics on RadioMD.com. Here's Melanie Cole, MS.
MELANIE: Well, if you're a parent that's concerned over the childhood obesity epidemic and you see what the schools are serving in the cafeterias. Maybe you're packing their lunches, but maybe your kid's getting their food at the school cafeterias. Do you wonder what's in it? Are there any healthy options?
My guest today is Dr. Robert Murray. He's a professor in human nutrition at Ohio State University.
Welcome to the show, Dr. Murray.
Let's talk about snacks, sweetened beverages, added sugars and schools. Tell us what's going on there today and what's a parent to do?
DR. MURRAY: Yes. Hi, Melanie. This policy statement came out from a committee on nutrition and a committee on school health and the first thing we wanted to do was to update parents and pediatricians about all the good things that have happened in schools over the past 15 years or so. We have had a remarkable job that has been done by the school food service in this country. When studies have been done repeatedly on the nutritional value of the school meals, they are extremely high, particularly compared with the normal packed lunches that are being sent in.
Secondly, we've had a good set of nutrition standards developed which were released in 2010 and that addressed school breakfast and lunch and then another set of standards addressed snack foods and vended foods in school.
So, as far as the school meals are concerned, we've got some tremendous steps that have been taken to move kids to a higher nutritional plane and they are working so far.
MELANIE: Okay. So, I went and looked at my son's lunch—because we put some money on a card and he can buy his lunch at school. He's in high school, a freshman. And so, I went on to the menu with him to pick some healthier choices because we really eat healthy. I'm an exercise physiologist. We eat healthy in this house and he's choosing junk because I can see what he chooses, you know? And, there were not a lot of healthy choices. There really weren't. He said the salad bar looks lame and otherwise, it's pizza and calzones and this pasta stuff and, I mean, can we do anything about that? You think it's really getting better? Can a parent ask for it? Would kids even choose these options?
DR. MURRAY: Yes, those are all questions that a lot of parents ask. First of all, it's important to know whether or not your school is participating in the USDA meal program. A number of schools that have very few kids who are either free and reduced or in that category opt out of the USDA program. So, when they do that, they don't have to follow the regulations.
MELANIE: Oh, that's interesting.
DR. MURRAY: Yes. So, that's one of the first things that a parent has to know. The second question you asked, Melanie, is can you do anything about it. If your school has opted out, yes, you can do something about it. Parents participate in Wellness Councils and can really have an active voice in looking to work with the food service director to improve the quality. Having said that, though, I want parents to realize something else. When you see the word "pizza" on a school menu, often that pizza is very, very different from the pizza you get at Denado's or some other pizza out in the commercial world. They've used whole grain white flour, for example. They use low fat cheese. They use turkey pepperoni. They do a number of things to make that pizza a much higher nutritional value than the pizza you'll see just out on the street. So, that's the other thing you have to realize. The school food service directors use a lot of tricks of the trade to meet nutrition requirements, but still hone as close to the child's taste preferences as they feel that they can.
The other thing to realize is that the school meals are not balanced day to day. They're balanced weekly and so, some days the food service people will put something on there that entices the kids to the program and in doing so, kind of engages the child in the overall program.
Those are really important pieces. The part of the policy statement that parents needed to hear, though, was that outside of the school meal programs and vended foods which are now under control of the USDA, we bring a lot of stuff into school. We do, parents do, kids do, teachers do and we do it for a lot of different reasons, but fundraisers, packed lunches, birthday parties, celebrations, holiday parties. We bring food in almost daily for these various celebrations or sales and in the process of doing that, we really are the ones who are bringing in low quality, high calorie foods into the school at this point. It's a local issue. That's a really important thing for parents to realize.
MELANIE: Well, Dr. Murray, we can also have another show on that because packing healthy lunches is not always easy. I even go through that myself and I studied nutrition at the Master's level and, you know, looking at GoGo Squeeze and my kids don't always want carrots and they don't always want vegetables with a ranch dip or a sandwich of some kind. So, it is a tough choice for parents to figure out how to keep the fruit looking fresh, if you want to send them with healthy choices, but now, what about beverages? I thought there was a whole Bill Clinton initiative a while back getting soda out of the schools, but my son is, every chance he gets that he thinks I'm not looking, he's taking a soda at school or some really nasty sugar sweetened, fake dye colored beverage.
DR. MURRAY: You know, part of the policy statement reviewed the benefits that have accrued because of the last 10 years since the soft drink statement and the Clinton Alliance got together. A lot of sweetened drinks have been cleared from schools and the new vending policy really limits the amount and type of sweetened drinks in schools for those schools that participate in the USDA programs.
But, they're around and we've recommended that if the child wants something sweet, focus attention on things like flavored milk or smoothies or other things where the parent doesn't just worry about the sugar, but worries about what's behind the sugar. Is there anything there that the kid is getting like in the case that you bring up, soft drinks, we don't get anything from that. But, if you look at smoothies, there's a lot of stuff—a lot of nutrition behind that and one of the points we made is for a parent, that's a good trade. Don't feel like you have to eliminate all fat, all sugar, all sodium. Instead, think in terms of making those tied to very high nutritional foods and you'll do well.
MELANIE: Well, I make smoothies every single day for my kids with almond milk. I use a full-fat organic yogurt because kids are active and the full fat doesn't scare me. So, it's made with almond milk and the yogurt and good, fresh fruit and these kids love it. It's like a milkshake every morning and I know it's giving them a good start, but then I worry about once they're about of my sight, then what are they choosing?
So, we have about a minute or so left. Dr. Murray, give parents listening your best advice on this policy statement and really what you want us to know and what we can do to help speed this process along.
DR. MURRAY: Well, I think, Melanie, the main takeaway, as a parent, I would say is that don't look at what to exclude from your child's diet so much as look at how you build a high-quality pattern. And, it is built. You don't just assume the Mediterranean Diet. You build it. So, one of the pieces of advice here was, every meal and snack, look at all 5 food groups. Look at what the child likes to eat and figure out ways of step-by-step putting in a little more fruit; a different salsa, as you did a smoothie instead of a fruit drink and slowly, piece by piece build a high-quality pattern and it'll stay close to what the child likes to eat, but at the same time, you'll greatly increase the nutritional value.
MELANIE: Absolutely great advice and parents listening, you know, take this to heart what Dr. Robert Murray has been discussing and talk with your kids. Try and look at the whole picture of nutrition for your children, giving them a good start to the day—a good breakfast. Don't be afraid of eggs and yogurt and good, fresh fruit. You can get creative, certainly, with lunches, too. I know it's tough, parents, but you can do it. We all have to just keep trying.
This is Melanie Cole. You're listening to Healthy Children right here on RadioMD.
Thanks so much for listening and stay well.