Are Kids Happy With Healthy Lunches?

Fresh fruit makes for a healthier lunch
Shane Kato / E+ / Getty Images

When the U.S. Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, it meant an overhaul of school nutrition standards (the requirements for school lunch and breakfast programs funded by the federal government). Those new standards were recommended by a panel of medical experts and implemented in 2012. And they were met with instant criticism: Pizza with a whole-wheat crust? Forced fruits and vegetables? Kids won't stand for it! They'll dump their lunch in the trash rather than eat those required vegetables or meals with less salt, sugar, fat, and calories than they're used to.

Except that didn't happen. A three-year study of students in 12 middle schools analyzed food selection, consumption, and waste both before the standards were in place and after. Rather than tossing more food away, kids are actually more likely to consume the newly nutritious meals.

Some highlights from the study, which was led by the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut:

  • More fruit, please: Pre-standards, about half of kids chose fruit for lunch. Post-standards, the number rose to two-thirds. And did they actually eat those apples, pears, and grapes? Yes, at about the same rate as they always had.
  • Variety is a plus: When schools offered more kinds of fruit, kids were significantly more likely to take some as part of their lunch.
  • More veggies down the hatch: After the standards changed, kids didn't put as many vegetables on their lunch plates. But they did eat more of what they chose, for a net increase in veggies consumed vs. tossed in the garbage.
  • Less waste: Contrary to common fears, kids aren't rejecting the healthier versions of lunch entrees, like whole-grain bread and pasta. They're eating more of them than they did before, tossing out only 16 percent of their entrees (vs. 29 percent before the nutrition change).

"This research adds to evidence that the updated nutrition standards for the National School Lunch Program can succeed in helping students eat healthier," said Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D., the study's lead author and director of the Rudd Center. "Some have expressed concern about the requirement that students take a fruit or vegetable," Schwartz said. "We're seeing a very positive response from students."

School Leaders Agree

This research supports the findings of another study, one that asked principals and school food service providers if kids liked the new meals. They do, said 70 percent of leaders in middle and elementary schools (the percentage was a bit lower for high schools, about 63 percent). And yes—this study did show that kids complained at first. But within six months, they had accepted the new meals. Elementary school leaders reported that the same number of students, or more, were purchasing school meals after the nutritional update.

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