Food for kids: what’s healthy, and what’s not

Pity the folks who work hard every day planning, cooking, and serving school lunches.

They do it on tight budgets and under rigid guidelines to meet nutritional requirements. It’s not easy. Everyone has a story about their own school cafeteria experience, likely involving “mystery meat” or watery spaghetti sauce that topped over-cooked pasta.

Things became even worse when over time, schools stopped doing any real “cooking” at all.

Instead, they used pre-packaged foods that merely required re-heating or defrosting, leaving them now with mostly ovens just to heat-and-serve with, says Michelle Dudash, local registered dietician and chef consultant.

Salad bars are becoming more common in schools.

But these days, schools are making an effort to do more scratch cooking, as they used to do way back when the idea of serving children a hot lunch at school began.

“This is a gradual process,” says Dudash, “because it takes more labor and a little more variety of equipment.”

Valley school cafeteria managers are challenged to meet the new USDA guidelines. Parents are challenged, too, as they try to provide good nutrition to their children in a world where sugary drinks, snacks and cereals, as well as fast foods, are heavily marketed to kids.

Dudash says that many people, including parents, tend to get caught up in focusing on one single nutrient in a food, but forget to take in account the total nutrient-richness.

For example, she says that though flavored milk has added sugar, it contributes just 3% of added sugars to kids’ diets while delivering 9 essential nutrients. Soda and many fruity drinks deliver little, if any beneficial nutrients, which makes them “empty-calorie drinks.”

Pairing a soda with a meal has become commonplace, says Dudash, but it should not be this way.

Soda can be enjoyed as a treat, but not offered on the everyday menu. “Kids should be drinking milk (lowfat dairy or fortified non-dairy alternative if needed) first, water throughout the day, and up to 4 to 8 ounces (for younger and older children, respectively) 100% fruit juice per day if they choose.”

The single-focus approach on one ingredient that many people take, says Dudash, can cause people to overlook particular foods like nuts or avocados. Parents say, “Oh, it’s high in fat!”

The truth is, says Dudash, that these types of foods that contain fats that are healthy. They contain other nutrients that are essential towards a child’s development.

Portion size is key, says Dudash, for parents and kids alike.

Carb and calorie contents are now posted with selections

Dudash encourages families to take a look at the simplicity of the guidelines that school cafeterias are trying to implement, and try following them at home. Parents who are confused, or have questions, should delve a little deeper in to what the recommendations are, and why they have been established.

“Go beyond simply asking your kids what they had for lunch,” says Dudash. “Take a closer look at the menu. Make an appointment to tour the cafeteria to see what really goes on — have a friendly, respectful chat with the cafeteria manager. And, maybe have lunch with your child at school.”


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