There are few issues as hot-button as chocolate milk when it comes to school food. Kids love it. But some parents don't—and those who don't REALLY don't. In fact, some have petitioned to have flavored milk removed from their children's school completely.
As a parent (and a registered dietitian), I understand the concerns about flavored milk, namely the extra sugar it provides. But I just don't think it deserves its bad reputation. Though I get fired up about birthday cupcakes in the classroom and candy valentines, I'm actually okay with chocolate milk in the lunch line. Here's why:
1. The sugar content is greatly exaggerated. About half of the sugar in flavored milk is natural milk sugar. I cringe when I see people comparing a carton of chocolate milk (about three teaspoons of added sugar in a standard school milk carton) to a can of soda (almost 10 teaspoons of added sugar in a standard can) because it's simply not accurate. And if we're going to get outraged about the added sugar in chocolate milk, we should also get outraged about the added sugar in lunchbox staples like fruit snacks (2.5 teaspoons of added sugar), granola bars (2 teaspoons), and juice pouches (4 teaspoons)—but for some reason, those often get a pass as being "healthy". (Ideally, kids should have no more than 5-8 teaspoons of added sugar per day.)
2. It's loaded with nutrients kids need. Those comparisons between chocolate milk and soda? Hardly. While soda is a nearly void of nutrients (besides carbohydrates from sugar), a carton of flavored milk has all the same nutrients as white milk, including calcium, vitamin D, protein, and potassium.
3. There are bigger fish to fry. The lunch menu at my child's school is dominated by chicken patties, hot dogs, and pizza that arrive at the school in plastic-covered trays. I would love to see fresher, healthier foods in schools—and I'd much rather have my child wash down a healthy whole-foods-based lunch with chocolate milk than eat a breaded chicken patty sandwich out of a plastic bag with a carton of white milk.
But balance is also important. So if your child's school serves flavored milk, here's my advice:
- Talk to your kids about the sugar in flavored milk. Make sure they understand that foods and drinks with extra sugar should be a much smaller part of their diet than unsweetened foods—even if that sugar is in otherwise wholesome foods and drinks like milk. So if they're choosing flavored milk in the lunch line, don't pack a sweet treat in their lunchboxes.
- Be sure your child has lots of access to water at school meals too. Pack a water bottle in their lunch bag or talk to the school about making water more available at lunchtime.
- Stock white milk at home and limit other sweet drinks like juice, sports drinks, and punches. Sugar in beverages can add up quickly.
What's YOUR opinion about chocolate milk in schools?
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She is the author ofCooking Light Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.
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Image: Glass of chocolate milk via Shutterstock