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A New Look to School Lunch

School Cafeteria Poster to Encourage Healthy Eating HabitsSchools will be back is session soon.  And with the ringing of that first inaugural bell for the 2012-2013 school year comes a brand new look to school lunch.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture set forth new nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP), effective July 1, 2012.  These changes are historic changes and the first update to the lunch standards in more than fifteen years.  You may have heard whispers in the media about what these new meal standards include.  I wanted to clear the air and provide you with the “Cliff Notes” version of these new guidelines to help keep you informed.

NOTE: Standards for the School Breakfast Program were also rolled out, but they do not go into effect until next school year. For the purpose of this blog, I will highlight key changes to the meal components and dietary specifications for lunch only.

Meal Components 

Fruits: Offer fruit as a separate food component at lunch daily. Fruits can be fresh, canned in fruit juice/water/light syrup; frozen without added sugar or dried without added sugar.

Vegetables: Offer vegetable as a separate food component at lunch daily. Schools are to offer all the vegetable subgroups identified by the Dietary Guidelines (dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes), starchy, and other) over the course of the week at minimum required quantities.

Grains: The new guidelines establish a minimum whole grain-rich requirement in the NSLP help children increase their intake of whole grains.  In the first two years of the new rules, whole grain-rich products must make up half of all grain products offered.  In the third year, all grains served during lunch must be whole grain-rich.

Meat/Meat Alternates: Schools must offer at least a minimum amount of meat/meat alternate daily (2 oz eq. for students in grades 9–12, and 1 oz eq. for younger students.  Menu planners are encouraged to offer a variety of protein foods (e.g., lean or extra lean meats, seafood, and poultry; beans and peas; fat-free and low-fat milk products; and unsalted nuts and seeds).

Fluid Milk: Offer plain or flavored fat-free milk and unflavored low-fat milk (1 percent milk fat or less).  Schools can continue to offer lactose-free and reduced-lactose milk (fat-free and/or low-fat) as part of the reimbursable meal.

NEW REVISION: Milk and fruit can be credited towards the meal requirements when used in smoothies prepared in schools.  Vegetables, yogurt and grains added to smoothies cannot be credited.  Also, commercially prepared smoothies cannot be credited.


Dietary Specifications

Calories: The new guidelines implement proposed minimum and maximum calorie levels for each grade group as a means to respond to serious concerns about childhood obesity.

Saturated Fat: Schools must continue to limit saturated fat in the school meals to help reduce childhood obesity and children’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Two requirements were set forth to help decrease saturated fat in meals: 1) allow only fat-free and low-fat milk, and 2) establish maximum calorie limits.

Sodium: Schools are required to make a gradual reduction in the sodium content of the meals over a 10 year time period, which will allow food manufacturers additional time to reformulate products and schools more time to build student acceptance of lower sodium meals. By the end of the 10 year period, sodium levels will be lowered by 53% for K- Gr. 5 and 54% for Gr. 6-12.

This is just a brief overview of the changes kids and teens will see in the school lunches.  As you can see, many positive changes have been made, all to better the health of our youth and give them many more tomorrows.

For the complete version of the Nutrition Standards in the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs; Final Rule, visit


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