The Maze of Food Options in School

Now that school is back in session, parents have a little less control over kids’ meals during waking hours.  For some kids involved in sports or extra-curricular activities, that means long hours before and/or after school.

These long hours can only be survived with good nutrition.  In school, kids can be tempted between multiple choices float between vending machines, the school lunch line or snack bar, and the concession stands strategically placed at all tournaments or big events.   Convenient?  Yes.  Well balanced and full of good energy?  No.

A few facts

  • In both middle and high schools, 75% of beverage options and 85% of snacks were of poor nutritional quality. The most prevalent options are soda, imitation fruit juices, candy,chips, cookies, and snack cakes.
  • 74% of middle/junior high schools and 98% of senior high schools have vending machines, school stores, or snack bars.
  • While the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the nutritional quality of meals sold under its reimbursable school lunch and breakfast programs, similar standards do not exist for foods and beverages that are sold individually outside the USDA meal programs, such as through vending machines, à la carte lines, fundraisers, and school stores. Those foods are often high in added sugars, salt, or saturated and trans fat.
  • Only 2% of children (2 to 19 years) meet the five main recommendations for a healthy diet from the USDA.


Vending Machines

You place your coins into that big box with a window, wait for your bag of chips and candy bar to fall, and compliment it with a soda from the machine right next store.  What do we have?  According to most of my young clients, we have three food groups. What does this lunch might provide? A lot of sugar and salt, and very little vitamins, minerals, or macronutrients that will provide long lasting energy and nutrition.

Fortunately, some of these machines are being pulled from the schools, not even allowing the option to be available. Some machines are also offering a wider variety of healthier choices in more appropriate portions, which may be great for a quick snack during the day.

Examples include, graham crackers, animal crackers, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, pretzels, trail mix, low-fat yogurt or milk, etc.  These are some options for a snack or to compliment a lunch, but don’t expect to get through an entire day on that tiny bag of pretzels.  For a more balanced lunch, let’s talk about the school lunches.

School Lunches and Snack bars

Believe it or not, as a law your school’s lunches must be regulated and follow specific standards.  Some are even looked over by the school district’s Registered Dietitian.  However, some of these regulations do allow things like tater tots to be classified as a “grain or vegetable”, or the sausage dripping off of that greasy pizza to be considered the “protein”.

And then you have the schools with the snack bars that offer various fast food type options such as boxes stuffed with fried chicken tenders and fries, nachos piled high with processed cheese, and baked potatoes overflowing with globs of butter, cheese, and sour cream.  Do we see anything green here besides the jalapenos on those nachos?!?!

Now don’t feel too defeated, these choices are perfectly fine every now and then. But a better way to ensure a healthy, nutritious lunch? Pack your own! Now if this is not realistic for your child or family, some snack bar and lunch line options can still fit the bill.

  • Top that baked potato with grilled chicken, cheese, and salsa and side it with a salad or fruit.  Ask for a grilled chicken sandwich or veggie burger with some baked chips and fruit instead of fries.
  • Look for a pizza topped with some veggies and side it with a big salad.  And make sure you remember to hydrate yourself with plenty of water or other low calorie options.

Concession Stands

If your child plays sports or even attends their school’s sporting events, the concession stands are always looming. The best piece of advice… be prepared! If your child is participating in a sport, these heavy, fat-laden options are not optimal fuel for performance. Bring a cooler packed with sandwiches, fruit, yogurt, pretzels or crackers, granola bars, and of course liquids.

The Good News

With so much concern about childhood obesity and children’s poor diets, a number of states have dedicated their energy towards strengthening and improving their school nutrition policies.  Such policies are important for children’s health and supporting parents’ efforts to feed their children healthfully.  To see where your state ranks go to

Written by Lauren Scott, MS, RD, LD

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