All About Nutrition and School Cafeteria Food

October 19, 2019
School cafeteria food should be varied and well balanced. What's more, it should meet all of a child's nutritional requirements.

In schools around the country, it’s common for children to depend on a school cafeteria for at least one meal each day. Therefore, schools face the important challenge of making sure they provide healthy and balanced meals for their students.

Will your child be eating school cafeteria food this year? Today we’ll tell you what requirements your school cafeteria should meet in order to provide for your child’s nutritional needs.

What requirements should school cafeterias meet?

Proper nutrition during childhood plays a fundamental role in physical and intellectual growth and development. It also helps to prevent nutritional deficiencies and excesses and to prevent many chronic illnesses in adulthood. These include obesity, hypertension, diabetes, osteoporosis, etc.

The functions of a school cafeteria

According to the Center for Obesity Research and Education, school self-assessment, nutrition education, nutrition policy, social marketing, and parent outreach all help to keep children from becoming overweight or obese.

All About Nutrition and School Cafeteria Food

Nutritional

The main dish should offer about 30-35% of their daily energy needs and an adequate amount of quality nutrients. It’s also important that, besides being nutritious, the food should also be attractive to children.

Education

  • A school cafeteria should promote healthy habits, attitudes, and lifestyles. The first years of life are crucial to the learning of good nutritional habits, and implementing adequate guidelines regarding nutrition is a decisive factor.
  • Another function of school cafeterias is to help students learn to adapt to a wide range of menus. Discovering new foods, observing their differences, understanding their nutritional value, and learning to eat them… These are all objectives of nutritional education. What’s more, eating in the company of friends favors the acceptance of new foods.
  • It’s essential that adults instill proper hygiene as well. This includes cleanliness in general, hands, teeth, and the handling and consumption of foods, etc. It also involves good manners: Using silverware, sitting up straight, chewing well, using a napkin, not talking with a full mouth, etc.

Guidelines for school cafeteria menus

A healthy and balanced menu is one that meets energy requirements and provides the necessary nutrients for good health.

General guidelines

  • School cafeteria menus should guarantee a sufficient caloric intake according to the age and physical activities of students. Menus should meet 30-35% of daily energy requirements.
  • 50-55% of the menu’s calories should come from carbohydrates (vegetables, fruits, bread, pasta, rice, etc).
  • Fats shouldn’t exceed 30% of daily requirements, and should be limited in regards to saturated and trans saturated fats.
  • Proteins should make up between 10 and 15% of the menu’s total calories. The proteins should include those of animal origin and plant origin and maximize the intake of legumes.
  • The meals children consume in the school cafeteria should provide for their daily requirements of vitamins and trace elements. Meal planning should spread the consumption of micronutrients, minerals out over 2-week periods.
All About Nutrition and School Cafeteria Food

Specific guidelines

  • The main dishes should be legumes, vegetables, pasta, and rice, followed by a rotation of meat, fish, and eggs. Finally, meals should include a side dish of vegetables.
  • Desserts should offer a choice of fruit or yogurt
  • In meal planning, school cafeterias should stay away from monotony. The same meal shouldn’t appear more than once every 2 weeks.
  • Children should consume at least 5 portions of fruits, vegetables and leafy greens each day. It’s also best to increment the incorporation of a variety of fresh or cooked vegetables both in main dishes as well as side dishes. Cafeterias should also maximize the consumption of soups and stews that contain vegetables, potatoes, greens, cereals, and legumes.
  • The consumption of fish should take priority over that of meat. Both blue and whitefish are recommended.
  • Bread servings should, preferably, be whole grain.
  • School cafeteria menus should stay away from pre-cooked and fried foods as well as industrial sweets and pastries.
  • It’s important to consume fresh foods that are in season and have had little handling.
  • Schools should vary their menus according to the time of year.
  • Parents should receive a copy of the school cafeteria menu, including the type of preparation and the composition of the side dishes and desserts.

The menus the school cafeterias offer should meet minimum standards regarding composition and quality. Finally, they should include traditional and regional dishes with abundant fresh and local fruits and vegetables.

  • Foster, G. D., Sherman, S., Borradaile, K. E., Grundy, K. M., Vander Veur, S. S., Nachmani, J., … & Shults, J. (2008). A policy-based school intervention to prevent overweight and obesity. Pediatrics121(4), e794-e802.
  • Guía de comedores escolares. Programa Perseo.
  • Kim, S. A., Moore, L. V., Galuska, D., Wright, A. P., Harris, D., Grummer-Strawn, L. M., … & Rhodes, D. G. (2014). Vital signs: fruit and vegetable intake among children—United States, 2003–2010. MMWR. Morbidity and mortality weekly report63(31), 671.
  • Manual práctico de nutrición en pediatría. Asociación española de pediatría.