At the beginning of the school year this past September, the idea of limiting calories per school meal caused an uproar. Should we be setting a maximum calorie limit for children at school or applying the idea of calorie counting for children?
What Changed in the USDA School Lunch Rule
The National School Lunch Act of 2010 set out several changes that will gradually be applied over the next few school years. The change that caused an uproar was creating a maximum calorie limit per school meal.
Specific calorie limits per grade:
- K-5: max 650 calories per meal
- Grades 6-8: up to 700 calories
- Grades 9-12: up to 850 calories
Calories and Children: No Calorie Counting!
Calorie counting is the wrong approach for a typical healthy child. Just as you don’t want children to obsess about their body weight, we shouldn’t facilitate calorie obsession when it comes to eating. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for children, since they come in all shapes and sizes and have different caloric requirements depending on metabolism and activity levels.
A typical school-aged child (4 to 8 years old) spends 1,200-1,400 calories a day. This increases to 1,600-1,800 kcal during middle school and 1,800-2,200 kcal in high school. However, kids that are very active in extracurricular sports or dance activities will require more calories. For instance, a 170 lb teenage boy could burn 600 calories from playing just one hour of early-morning hockey. That one hour of game-time alone would take his daily calorie requirement to about 3,000 calories!
The idea behind reduced school lunch portions and larger servings of fruits and vegetables is that it could help address the increasing rates of obesity among children. While the intention behind this change may be good, we believe this strategy is going about it the wrong way. A calorie limit for a school meal also does not seem realistically enforceable. If we are teaching children to listen to their own bodies for hunger cues, we should be teaching them about healthy food choices they can make as they grow up.
For example, getting children to eat more plant-based foods means:
- Serving a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily at snacks and mealtimes.
- Perhaps trying a different whole grain once or twice a week. Focus on serving minimally processed whole grains. For example, instead of pasta, try wheat berries. There is a whole world of gluten-free whole grains that are enjoyable for everyone, such as quinoa or teff.
- Letting children try the same fruit or vegetable several times, even if they don’t like it on the first try.
- Serving fruits and vegetables in an appealing way. This may mean trying different ways of serving, whether raw or cooked.
The Bottom Line
Healthy eating is NOT about calorie counting. If we want children to adopt lifelong healthy eating habits, we need to walk the talk ourselves. Model an active lifestyle and eat a wide variety of mostly plant-based foods to stay in optimal health. Teaching children to eat well involves more than just one school lunch a day.