In reading about the new USDA school breakfast and lunch standards, I realized I should try a real-life experiment with my own kids: only feed them meals within the parameters of new nutrition standards, just to see if reasonable and satiating meals could be created from the rules. But 1) I didn’t want my already skinny kids to go hungry and 2) I didn’t want to see food thrown in the garbage. I also didn’t want to hear more whining and complaining from my already whiny kids. Then it dawned on me: why not follow the new guidelines myself? Surely the USDA standards for a high school student would be enough for a non-athletic housewife.
Here is a link to the guidelines; numbers in each category are amounts per five day week, while numbers in parentheses are amounts per day. The daily high school amounts come out to:
breakfast: 2 oz. of grains; 8 fluid oz. milk
lunch: 1 cup fruit; 1 cup vegetables; 2.4 oz. grains; 2.4 oz. meat or meat alternative; 8 fluid oz. milk
The fine print provides further stipulations. Milk must be low fat or skim; grains must be whole grain (no white bread or white rice); dried fruit is measured at half capacity (i.e. 1/2 cup dried fruit = 1 cup fruit); fruit juice can only be half of a fruit serving (for lower grades, this would mean no more than 1/4 cup of juice per lunch- why bother?). The vegetable fine print is really confusing. There are five subcategories of vegetables:
…but “any vegetable subgroup may be offered to meet the total weekly vegetable requirement” (footnote “h”) and “larger amounts of these [i.e. all sub groups] vegetables may be served” (footnote “f”). If any vegetable can be served to meet the requirements, why bother dividing them into categories? So if I’m understanding this correctly, you can eat as many vegetables (including potatoes and beans) as you want, as long as the meal caloric total does not exceed 850 calories. I have to admit, I’m hard pressed to see how a cup of fruit, a cup of veggies (though a cup of leafy greens is only considered half a cup of veggies), 2.4 oz each grain and meat, and 8 fluid oz of milk will approach anywhere near 850 calories, especially when fat must be less than 10% of all calories (compare this to an Atkins style diet where as much as 50% of calories come from fat). So for an 850 calorie meal, you’re only allowed 85 calories of fat. That’s less than a tablespoon of olive oil.
Breakfast was 2 oz. focaccia and 1 oz. swiss cheese. I only have whole milk in the house, which is not allowed, but a cup of low fat milk is about 100 calories, so I had 100 calories of cheese instead.
I ate at 6:30am and was hungry by 8:30, but not severely. I realized after the fact that the focaccia was not whole grain, so I started some (whole, unsweetened) oatmeal with half a cup raisins (which equals “1 cup of fruit’) in the crock pot for lunch. I was ravenously hungry by 10am, but wanted to hold out to noon (I ended up eating at 1pm because I ran errands).
Lunch was a feast compared to breakfast. Since I was allowed “larger amounts” of vegetables I had a large salad, 2.4 oz oats (measured dry) cooked with 1/2 cup raisins, 2.4 oz of baked chicken cutlet, and 100 calories fresh mozzarella (in lieu of 100 calories of milk).
It was all delicious especially since I was starving, but I daresay not kid friendly- except for the measly chicken cutlet. My kids won’t eat oatmeal unless it’s cooked with sugar and whole milk. They may have taken a few bites of salad (minus the vinaigrette) but that iceberg lettuce probably doesn’t cut USDA “dark green” standards.
To my surprise lunch came to ~750 calories which is more than I normally eat for lunch and is at the lower end of the USDA lunch caloric requirements. Most of those calories (500) are pure carbs: oatmeal and raisins. In theory I could have added 100 more calories in vegetables (even potatoes- yet more carbs) while remaining within the guidelines. I felt stuffed after this meal, but I ate everything available. Remember kids are throwing away “gross” foods like salad and unsweetened oatmeal, which for this meal would leave barely 250 calories in chicken and dairy. And sure enough I am seeing the “strange combinations” that occur in school lunchrooms. Who eats oatmeal with a chicken cutlet?
To my disappointment by 4pm- only 3 hours after eating- I was ravenously hungry again! This despite eating twice as many calories for lunch as I normally do. High carb, low fat, low protein meals do indeed leave you hungry. While I’m not a low carb person, I do eat much more fat in a typical day than 10% of my calories. I love vegetables slathered in olive oil; I love nuts and peanut butter, and glop copious butter on bread. By this point I was afraid to eat a “school lunch” dinner for fear I’d be famished by bedtime. So I cooked up some roasted mushrooms drenched in olive oil. Ah- that was better!
Thus my observations are the USDA breakfast is too skimpy, and that the more generous lunch is not kid friendly with its dearth of proteins and grains, is too carb heavy (but not due to grains), and woefully lacking in fat and protein. Also it took a while to eat, which is not a bad thing, but you can’t wolf down salad like you would a sandwich. Many children, particularly those in crowded schools (most of NYC) have brief, staggered lunch periods made even briefer standing in line and fending off obnoxious lunchmates. My kids in Catholic school often have barely 20 minutes to eat. Lunch periods should be doubled in school, especially since kids aren’t learning much in the classrooms anyway. You might as well devote that time to healthy eating.