Out to Lunch

From the WebMD Archives

Sept. 6, 2001 -- As children everywhere go back to school, Jo Kingsley, RD, director of food and nutrition services at the South Kitsap School District in Port Orchard, Wash., offers tips to help parents better understand and analyze the nutritional content and value of a typical school lunch should their kids decide to buy instead of brown-bagging it this year.

Take "pizza day" in her school system, says Kingsley, also Northwest Regional Director for the American School Food Service Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

There are an average of 752 calories in the entire meal -- including a triangular slice of pepperoni pizza, a serve-yourself "fruit and veggie" bar, and a Dixie cup of ice cream. This meal has 28.1 grams of protein, 108.4 grams of carbohydrates, 25.3 grams of fat, and 590.7 milligrams of calcium. Milk and water are always available to drink with meals.

"Parents might not know that we are using a lower-fat turkey pepperoni or cheese mixed with low fat cheeses to get the calories and fat down in the meal," she tells WebMD. Kingsley prints the calories, fat, protein, and carbohydrate content of all the meals she serves on her district's menus.

"We show parents our goal for calories, fat, and protein per meal and how close to that we come," she says. For example, the goal is to have fat below 30% of total calories in all meals, and on average, meals had 27.8% of calories from fat, she says.

On average, most meals have about 654 calories and the target is 675 calories, a goal they meet 97% of the time, Kingsley says. Most growing children require about 2,200 calories per day.

As another example, take "hamburger day", also a kid favorite. The meal includes a hamburger, oven-baked fries, and an open fruit-and-veggie bar with salad dressing, for a total of 501 calories. This meal contains 25.4 grams of protein, 64.4 grams of carbohydrates, and 17.1 grams of fat.

Most school meals, she says, must contain a minimum of two fruits and vegetables and meet certain dietary guidelines before the government will reimburse the school's meal programs. Schools must offer children five items from four food components: a serving of meat or meat alternate, a bread or bread alternate (at least one each day and a total of eight servings over the course of a week), two different fruits or vegetables, and milk.

"We work with manufacturers to make sure foods that kids like fit into meal patterns, meet dietary guidelines, and taste good but are lower in fat," Kingsley says.

How can a parent find out what, specifically, their kids are eating?

"Call the director of the food service program in your district," Kingsley recommends. "Ask the office staff at the school or ask the food server who is in charge."

Better yet, she says, "Go have lunch with your child at school. And if there's a parent advisory committee, explore the possibility of being on it. Get involved."