by Cassie I. Story, RD

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Sunbeams peak through gingham curtains as an assembly line of food items lay on the kitchen counter. Ten slices of Wonder Bread wait patiently to be filled with bologna, American cheese and a dollop of mayo. Once the sandwiches are ready, they make their way into a brown bag alongside baggies filled with crinkled salty chips, and an apple. Five children pile out of the house and are bid farewell with a kiss as they begin their hike to school, uphill, both ways, knee-high in the snow (even in September). On Fridays, they are given a quarter to purchase milk, but other than that, their lunches were the same every single day.

This is how my mom describes her school lunch routine growing up in the 1960s. When I think of my own school lunch during the 1980s, images of punch card cafeteria tickets, hairnet-wearing lunch ladies and Strawberry Shortcake tins with matching thermoses come to mind. Oh, and let’s not forget trading cookies for soft yellow cakes with cream filling.

Walk around any school cafeteria now and you will see some classic elements from years past. Wonder Bread still exists, bags of chips are now already packaged for you and trading food seems to be unacceptable due to the rise in food allergies — although my daughters still mention giving and accepting food just as I had 25 years ago.

You will also notice a rise in a more health conscience approach to packing school lunch. A quick search on Pinterest and you can find thousands of ways to pack a Bento Box, ideas on how to turn vegetables into animals and sandwiches into monsters, 206 unique inspirational quotes to write to your child each day and 37 lunch ideas beyond the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

With so many inspirational lunch ideas that can be found online, I still struggle with what to put in my daughters’ lunch boxes. Do they really need food that resembles origami in order to eat healthy? Would it be easier to place money in their school account and have them buy hot lunch every day, or would that mean they are being served unhealthy meals five days a week?

There is a vast range of foods offered at schools throughout the country. Some schools purchase mostly fresh and local foods, have garden clubs where they use the harvest to feed their students and employ chefs to prepare new cuisine each day. On the other hand, some schools depend on fast food companies to bring in pizza, tacos and various sandwiches for their students to eat.

Do you know what is offered to your children at school? What can be done to improve the nutritional quality of the food provided? To answer those questions, let’s take a step back and look at how the school lunch program began.

The History of School Lunches
The National School Lunch Program, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), was established in 1946 with a goal to provide students access to meals at school. It began with each school providing balanced meals, cooked on school property. Throughout the next several decades, the National population increased and we needed to continue to feed our children. Funding for the school lunch program decreased and big food companies came on the market, making it cheaper and easier for schools to purchase frozen prepared products and simply reheat them on-site. We lost our school cooks, and in exchange gained heavily processed food products.

Recognizing that change needed to happen to improve the nutritional quality of food offered in schools, in 2010 congress passed the “Healthy, Hunger Free Kids Act.” Some key changes included ensuring that children had a fruit and vegetable serving on their tray, eliminating trans fats (except naturally occurring ones), reducing sodium levels, increasing whole grains and a new set of guidelines on the frequency of offering desserts.

Other new programs were introduced, such as Team Nutrition, an initiative from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to support the Child Nutrition Programs. Within this new initiative is a voluntary certification called “The Healthier U.S. School Challenge: Smarter Lunchrooms,” which allows schools to apply for certification once they have created healthier school environments through promoting nutrition and physical activity.

Another exciting initiative is the ‘Farm to School’ program. Students gain access to healthy, local foods, as well as education in their curriculum about cooking, school gardens and farms, which they visit on field trips. The program differs by location. Examples of program actions include planting school gardens and the promotion of purchasing local foods to be served in the cafeteria.

Get Involved
If you’re not sure where your children’s school falls on the wide spectrum of foods offered, it’s time to get involved! Visit the school and see what’s being served at lunch, review the lunch menu sent home with your child or look online at your school’s Web site. Talk to your kids about what’s being served at school, and help them come up with ways to eat healthy while they’re away from home.

Personally, my daughters’ preference is to take their lunch the majority of the time. After several stressful mornings of my attempts to increase the variety of their packed lunch and present it in a way that would earn me ‘Pinterest Mother of the Year,’ I realized we needed a new plan. One that was quick, easy and healthy.

We sat down and came up with a system, a chart of food groups with portion sizes and serving suggestions — the dietitian in me couldn’t help it. This chart hangs on our refrigerator and each morning they pack their own lunch, with smiles and ease. Okay, maybe I’m dreaming that last part, but a mother can hope right?

Serving sizes based on child’s age, gender and activity level:

Whole grain
(Choose 2-4)
Whole wheat bread (1 slice), whole wheat english muffin (1/2), whole wheat tortilla (6”), whole wheat cereal (1/2 cup), whole wheat pita bread (1/2), whole wheat crackers (6), whole wheat mini-bagel (1), whole wheat frozen waffle, whole wheat pasta (1/2 cup), brown or black rice (1/2 cup), quinoa (1/2 cup)

Protein/Healthy Fats (Choose 2-3)
Minimally processed deli meat/poultry (2 oz.), hard-boiled egg (1), tuna/salmon/ chicken salad (2 oz.), grilled chicken (2 oz.), beans (1/2 cup), cheese stick (1 oz.), yogurt (3-4 oz.), tofu (2 oz.), veggie burger (2 oz.), nuts/seeds (almonds, peanuts, walnuts, pistachios, etc.) (1 oz.), avocado (1/4), natural nut butter (2 Tbsp.), minimally processed salad dressing (1 Tbsp.)

(Choose 2-3, raw or cooked, 1/4 cup – 1/2 cup)
Sliced bell peppers, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, cherry tomatoes, celery, corn, cucumber slices, mixed greens, green beans, potatoes (leftovers), snap peas

(Choose 2-3, 1/4 cup – 1/2 cup)
Apple slices, applesauce (no sugar added), apricots, berries, cherries, grapes, kiwi, mandarin oranges
(packed in water), nectarines, peaches, pineapple, plums, tangerines, melon

(On PE days or sports activity days) (Choose 0-1)
Look for the healthiest options possible (least amount of added sugar, sodium, saturated and trans fats)
Fruit snacks, baked chips, bite sized packages of candy, animal crackers

Water – flavored naturally with fruit (lemon, lime, berries), sparkling water without added sugar

Complete Meal Ideas:

  • Yogurt parfait: Yogurt, topped with mixed berries and whole grain cereal or granola. Serve with whole wheat English muffin topped with natural nut butter and sliced cucumbers.
  • Quesadilla: Melt cheese on a whole wheat tortilla in the microwave, then wrap in tin foil and place in an insulated container. Serve with tortilla chips and salsa, carrot sticks and sliced apples.
  • Homemade “lunch-able”: Whole wheat crackers with slices of ham and cheese, cherry tomatoes, almonds, chocolate covered raisins.
  • Skewers: Thread non-sharp wooden skewers with sliced melons, cheese, grapes and grilled chicken, serve with a small mixed green salad and whole wheat pita bread.
  • Baked potato: Top with grilled chicken, slightly steamed broccoli, salsa (can be enjoyed cold), with a side of berries and animal crackers.
  • Breakfast for lunch: Toast a whole wheat English muffin, add cheese and a sliced hard-boiled egg. Serve with orange slices and cherry tomatoes.

Healthy choices can be possible whether your child packs their lunch or buys lunch at school. It will take continued effort to improve what’s being served to our children at school, as well as what foods we can purchase to send with them in their lunch boxes. We may not have all the answers on the best ways to improve school lunch, but we must continue to put an effort into making sure our children are served healthy and nutritious options.

For a list of schools in your area who have received the certification CLICK HERE.

For a list of resources and ways to help your school district get involved CLICK HERE.


About the Author:
Cassie I. Story, RD, is a dietitian who has been working with bariatric patients for the past 11 years. She recently started a food blog,, to help inspire healthy eating following bariatric surgery. She enjoys cooking, hiking and spending time with her two daughters in Arizona.