Changes Could Be Coming To Your Child's School Lunch—But Don't Worry, Chocolate Milk Is Here To Stay

School lunches are about to become healthier, as new proposed USDA guidelines aim at cutting sugar and salt.

Kids eat a school lunch together

Ariel Skelley / Getty Images

Changes could be coming to your child's school lunch, all in the name of health. But don't worry—the changes won't be drastic, and they'll be implemented gradually. And yes, your child will still get to indulge in their beloved chocolate milk, if that's their thing.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced some proposed tweaks to school lunch guidelines. The revisions, which would be implemented gradually between 2024 and 2029, aim at making school lunches healthier and aligning lunch recommendations with newly updated nutrition guidelines. There is a public comment period and the USDA plans to make final recommendations in time for the 2024-25 school year.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack points to a rising number of diet-related health concerns in kids and explains these new guidelines aim to tackle these issues. "Research shows school meals are the healthiest meals in a day for most kids, proving that they are an important tool for giving kids access to the nutrition they need for a bright future," Vilsack says in a USDA press release.

What Changes Is The USDA Recommending?

So what exactly would your kid be seeing less of in their lunch? Well, first of all, the goal is for school lunches to be less sugary. According to the proposed guidelines, added sugars will be limited. At first, there will be restrictions on the sugar content of specific products school lunches serve (think sweetened cereal and baked goods). After that, there will be overall weekly limits on sugar content.

Another nutrient to get nixed? Sodium. The idea is to gradually reduce sodium (salt) content in school lunches over the next few years. Sodium content will be reduced by 10% in school breakfasts in both 2025 and 2027. School lunches will see three 10% reductions in sodium, to be implemented in the 2025, 2027, and 2029 school years.

Here's where we get to the milk. Fat-free and low-fat milk will be served in school lunches, but the sugar content in these kinds of milk will be limited. Still, it's likely flavored milk (including chocolate milk) will remain. The USDA is still deciding whether flavored milk should be limited for high schoolers, or if everyone in grades K-12 should be offered flavored milk. Either way, kids in grades K-8 will definitely be given the option of flavored milk, but with less sugar content.

USDA Infographic on proposed rule for school meal stanards

U.S. Department of Agriculture

Not everything proposed is an elimination, though. Some healthier options will be added. The USDA recommends more whole grains be offered, and that more multicultural foods are included in school lunch menus (primarily for American Indian and Alaska Native children). They also recommend more locally grown and raised foods to be served.

Again, these changes will be gradually introduced, starting in 2024 and continuing through 2029. The USDA based its guidelines on both wanting to introduce healthier options, but also recognizing that kids are kids, and suddenly changing the amount of sugar and salt in school lunches might not fly with most.

"USDA recognizes that food is only nutritious if students eat it, which is why we considered feedback from food science experts, program operators, students, and others on how to balance taste and nutrition when developing the proposed standards," the USDA explains on its website. "For example, the proposed reductions for added sugars and sodium would be gradual across multiple school years to allow students' tastes to adapt to the changes."

Why Are They Recommending These Changes?

The main reason these changes were proposed is to ensure that kids stay healthy. Specifically, the USDA is tasked with developing nutritional guidelines that align with the most updated version of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The most recent guidelines found that kids are taking in too much sodium, sugar, and saturated fat, according to the USDA. Furthermore, kids aren't getting enough fruits, veggies, and whole grains.

"Diets high in sugar, sodium, and saturated fat are linked to cardiovascular diseases, liver disease, and diabetes," says Elise Friend RD, LDN, a clinical dietitian at Children's Hospital New Orleans. "By replacing these harmful substances with increasing healthy fats, natural sources of sugar from fruit, and fiber from whole grains and vegetables, schools will be the first line of defense against diet-related diseases."

What Do Nutritionists Think?

Overall, the nutritionists say these changes are positive. "A reduction of added sugar and food high in sodium is an excellent step toward healthier school lunches," says Yelena Wheeler MPH, RDN, registered dietitian nutritionist at MIDSS. She also strongly agrees with the idea of phasing in these changes gradually.

"In a young population that truly needs nutrients and does not have access to alternative food options during school hours, it is vital to keep them fed," she says. "I would rather have a child drink flavored milk with sugar and obtain some calcium for the day, rather than them not consuming any calcium at all that day."

Blanca Garcia, RDN, a registered dietician, nutritionist, and nutrition specialist at Healthcanal, agrees with the proposed changes in general, and the gradual implementation. However, she's not down with keeping chocolate milk on the menu. Sorry, kids!

"Every conversation I have with parents about their child not liking regular milk comes with giving them chocolate milk," Garcia notes. "They believe milk is essential for bones, and with that fear, they exacerbate the intake of added sugars in their child's diet." But she says it's a myth that milk is a vital part of kids' diets. "The idea that we need to drink milk is so outdated. We can get those nutrients in vegetables, legumes, fruits, and whole grains that are fortified with vitamins A and D."

Healthier Eating Starts At Home

Wheeler points out if we want our kids to eat healthier at school, we need to model healthier eating at home, too. And yes, that starts with us: the parents and caregivers.

"If parents themselves consume processed high fat, sugar, and salty foods, then their kids will see that as the norm and then have school lunches to reinforce that," she explains. "However, when kids are exposed to healthier foods at home, they will then be more likely to embrace any healthier school lunch changes."

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