How would you feel if your child's school swapped out meat and fish in favor of tofu, beans and other plant foods? According to a recent article on NBCNEWS.com, P.S. 244 in Queens, New York recently became the first public elementary school in New York City—and perhaps in the nation—to provide all-vegetarian lunchtime fare.
When I initially heard about this, I asked myself a few questions. Would the children feel that they were being force fed a vegetarian-only menu? Would the move send a message to the school's faculty, students and parents that going meat-free was necessary to optimize the health and wellbeing of the students?
I'm all for improving the quality of school lunches. For some students, school lunches may be their best, most complete meals of the week. And for all students, having regular access to foods and meals that are palatable and presented in an appealing way is key. Not only does it make children willing—even excited—to eat, but it provides them with key nutrients. Being well nourished helps children perform optimally whether they're taking a test, learning a new lesson or participating in gym class or in after-school sport or activity.
As a registered dietitian and nutritionist—and one who applauds the Meatless Monday campaign and other initiatives that push more plant-based diets—I'm well aware of the many nutritional and health benefits associated with a diet rich in plant foods. Plant-based diets are linked with a reduced risk of several chronic diseases and healthy body weight. Incorporating more vegetables and fruits, grains (especially whole grains), beans and peas, and nuts and seeds provides growing children with protein and fiber as well as an array of vitamins and minerals.
Being offered vegetarian fare only can also expose children to a wide variety of plant foods they might otherwise not know about. Seeing peers (and even faculty) enjoy such meals may also have a ripple effect and inspire some who are reluctant to try such foods. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics says supports a well-planned vegetarian diet as a healthful, nutritionally adequate option for children.
Despite the possible health and other perks of going vegetarian, a recent study suggests that a plant-based diet with small intakes of red meat, fish and dairy products can improve health. Including small portions of animal foods that are prepared in healthful, low-fat ways—for example, broiled or grilled lean beef, skinless poultry and baked, unbreaded fish—provides high quality protein and other vital nutrients. Lean beef and poultry boast selenium and several B vitamins, and seafood—especially fatty, oily fish—provides potent omega-3 fatty acids.
While leaving meat, fowl and fish off of school lunch menus everyday is not, in my opinion, a reason to revolt, I think it's unnecessary. There's also a risk that children—especially those who are reluctant to try new foods or are 'picky' or particular in their taste preferences—perhaps they don't like beans, tofu or edamame—won't get enough protein. Having adequate protein at meals can help children fill up faster, stabilize blood sugar levels and support growing muscles.
Choosy children may also be at risk for eating nutritionally-imbalanced meals, especially if they have extra helpings of pasta, rice, bread and fruit because they don't like or are unwilling to try other foods.
Only time will tell if an all-vegetarian lunch will come to a school near you. For now, I advocate that children should be offered a lunch menu that's heavy in plant proteins and colorful produce, and lighter in meat, poultry, fish and low fat dairy foods. It's all about providing a variety of healthfully prepared foods to please different palates.
Would you support an all-vegetarian menu at your child's school?
Image of students in cafeteria via Shutterstock.