Every Friday my son requests to have a hot lunch at school, and he’s not shy about the reason. Chocolate milk. He loves it and I don’t blame him. It’s delicious and he only gets it at school once a week. Other days he usually takes a lunch I’ve packed that includes protein, fruit, veggies and an occasional treat. He’ll also buy lunch on the occasion I forgot to make it the night before, or when I’ve overslept and we’re rushing to catch the bus. It happens.
School meals are a hot button issue with parents. They are concerned about the quality of the ingredients in the food, and whether or not the overall presentation of said food looks appetizing enough to eat. As a registered dietitian, you may think I have similar sentiments. My reservations about school meals, however, are less about the food that my child is consuming, and more about the environment in which it’s being consumed. If parents and school staff could focus their mindset more on improving the mealtime environment, and less on villainizing the food itself, we could do a better job of helping our children have a healthy relationship with food.
I do believe that the school district’s food service department is working hard to provide quality meals for our students. They are functioning under the constraints of their kitchens and budgets, along with the strict nutrition guidelines set forth by the USDA.
Am I worried about the food that’s being served to my child and the ingredients that are being used? No, I’m not. Could things be improved? Sure, they could. I’d love to see less processed food and more local, fresh ingredients. This is a work in progress and the food service department is open to ideas, working closely with other school districts, the school board and parents on ways to improve.
I am focused on the mealtime environment. I want to be sure that my child can sit in the cafeteria for as long as he needs to eat his lunch without feeling the rush of recess and the outdoor playground that awaits him. My hope is for him to enjoy the experience of eating with his friends, taking this short respite from the activities of a long school day. I want to make sure there is no pressure from the lunchroom monitors to eat his veggies before dessert, or persuasion to try foods that he doesn’t have an interest in eating.
I expect that food and recess are not being used as a form of reward or punishment and that he’s not learning about food in terms of it being “good” or “bad,” rather that all foods can have a place in our diets in moderation. I assume that no one is shaming my child for his food choices, or myself for that matter should I choose to pack a treat in his lunchbox for him to enjoy. Chocolate milk at Wayzata Public Schools went from being offered daily to only once per week at the start of the 2018-2019 school year due to parents’ concerns about the added sugar being offered at lunchtime, according to Michelle Sagedahl, culinary express director for the district.
Due to this change, my son is now even more excited to consume it because he feels it’s being restricted. To combat this, I have chosen to offer it more frequently in my home. Sometimes I’ll even enjoy a glass with him because, after all, it’s chocolate milk, and it’s delicious.
Andrea is a registered dietitian and resides in Plymouth with her husband and three young children. Her favorite time of day is sitting down for meals with her family.