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It’s back-to-school time!  School supplies? Check! Medical forms completed? Check! Clothes for the first day? Check! School lunch?. . .

This year as you prepare to send your kids to school, consider checking out more than the math and reading lineup for the year. Take a look at what is going to be served in the school cafeteria. This year the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) updated its nutrition standards for school meals for the first time in 17 years! (see Kids’ Safe and Healthful Foods Project).

What does that mean for your kids? Meals will be required to be far healthier than in years past. It means a greater selection of fruits and vegetables, foods with less saturated fat, transfat, and sodium; more whole grains, only no- or low-fat dairy, and more appropriate serving sizes. With these changes, parents can feel confident that their children are getting meals that help meet their nutrition needs without exceeding their energy needs.

But not all of these changes will be easy to make. Schools operate on extremely tight budgets. (Have you ever tried to make a healthy and delicious meal for less than $2 in total food costs?)  Many schools will face that challenge this year, and will have to prepare meals with less than ideal kitchen equipment. (Our site has more information on school equipment challenges ). On top of all of that, children are not the easiest audience to please.

But it is doable! Thousands of schools around the country have already implemented healthier school meals standards and have done so in ways that have pleased children’s taste palates. (see school success stories ).

So what can you do?  Get familiar with your school’s menu and talk with your nutrition director. Find out what progress they’ve made in meeting the new standards and what challenges remain. Make time to join your child for lunch in the school cafeteria and encourage them to taste and enjoy the new offerings. Websites such as USDA’s healthier school day offer many more ideas for parental involvement.

While the school meals are healthier, there may still be other snack foods or beverages that are sold in school stores, vending machines, or a la carte lines that may be less nutritious. These items not only compete for students’ appetites and dollars, they are also generally less healthy than the more balanced school meals. USDA will soon be updating nutrition standards for these foods, too.  However, there are many districts and schools all across the country that have already moved to make these snack foods and beverages more healthful. Several studies (Health Impact of Snack and A La Carte Foods and Healthier Snacks and Drinks May Help to Prevent Weight Gain) have recently shown that a healthier school food environment can have an extremely beneficial effect on our children’s health.

We know healthier children are better learners, so let’s be sure every school is adding healthy meals to its back-to-school checklist.  We can make the 2012-2013 school year a happy, productive, and HEALTHY one! Bon Appétit!

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On Thursday, September 13 at 7pm EST, join National PTA President Betsy Landers, White House Chef Sam Kass, KSHF’s director Jessica Donze Black, and USDA for a live discussion about the exciting new meals coming to school cafeterias near you.  Learn how at http://www.healthyschoolfoodsnow.org/

Jessica Donze Black is a registered dietitian, mother of three, and the Director of the Kids Safe and Healthful Foods Project – a joint initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Washington, DC. Follow her @JDonzeBlack_Pew


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