When my older daughter started school three years ago, another mom in our community who already had kids in the school system gave me a word of caution: wait until you see what they serve for school lunch.

My husband and I had already decided that we would pack lunch from home because no matter what they served in school, we knew it wouldn’t be the healthy, homemade meals she was already eating.

Although I knew it wasn’t likely that the schools were serving roasted salmon and fresh green salads everyday, I never thought it would be as bad as it is.

When I took a look at the school lunch menu I was shocked.

Foods like hot dogs, tater tots and chocolate milk were on the menu every single week.

After the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 was passed, schools participating in the National School Lunch Program made some positive changes to their menus like adding more fruits and vegetables and whole grains, limiting the amount of calories and reducing the amount of sodium in meals.

Take a closer look at most school lunch menus however, and I’m sure you’ll find that just because the meals meet certain dietary requirements, the foods that are served are not foods our kids should be eating.

And now that the Trump administration has rolled back the school lunch standards, schools have even more flexibility to serve unhealthy foods that meet a budget but only worsen our kids’ health.

Although I can’t say that my kids’ school has relaxed the Obama-era standards, their menus still fall seriously short.

Here are some reasons why my kids’ school lunch is unhealthy and what I’m trying to do to improve it.

Junk food is served as a “snack”

My kids’ school encourages parents to have lunch with their kids, so from time to time I do.

Last year while I was sitting with my daughter in the cafeteria, one of the cafeteria aids walked up to the front of the room and with mic in hand, announced it was snack time.

“Snack?,” I asked my 5-year-old. It was only 15 minutes into their 30 minute lunch time.

When I hear the word snack, I think about something small that tides my kids over until the next meal and is most certainly something they eat between meals.

Yet what my kids’ school dubs a snack, is actually a junk food treat: chips, ice cream, popsicles crackers and cookies.

One of the foods they sell are Nacho Cheese Doritos.

Sure, it satisfies the National School Lunch Program guidelines because it has whole grains (corn), but it’s processed, made with GMOs and contains artificial ingredients and artificial food dyes.

Take maltodextrin, which has an even higher glycemic index than sugar and evidence suggests it can alter gut bacteria and lead to allergic reactions and food intolerances. This is definitely not something our kids should be eating, especially during the school day.

Oh and did I mention, less than 3 hours later when the kids are packing up for the day, they get another snack?

Most of the food is fake

Nearly all of the school lunch items that are offered are highly processed, made with factory-farmed animal products, and are frozen foods that come out of a package and are re-heated. 

Take a look at some of the foods they sell:

  • crispy chicken patty          
  • general tso’s chicken
  • beef nachos with tortilla chips 
  • hot dogs                  
  • tater tots
  • processed deli meats                                                  
  • popcorn chicken
  • chicken nuggets
  • mozzarella sticks
  • pizza
  • hamburgers and cheeseburgers
  • French toast sticks

While they do serve fruits and vegetables every day, it’s not exactly fresh. The packages of apple slices for example, are prepared with preservatives that give them a 21-day shelf life.

Totally unbalanced

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a healthy plate is made up of 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 protein and 1/4 whole grains.

In my kids’ school, the kids are required to pick a fruit or a vegetable, but I doubt it makes up half the plate. They do offer salads as the main dish every day, but I’m sure the amount of kids that purchase salads is negligible, if non-existent.

Besides, some of the meal options seem totally unbalanced and only meet the requirements.

Take the yogurt or a cheese stick with a bagel meal and the macaroni and cheese with a wheat bread stick meal—not exactly the healthy, balanced meals we should be teaching our kids to eat.

A lack of healthy fats

Healthy fats like those found in fish, avocado and olive oil are essential to kids health, but they’re not a major part of the school lunch menu. The one caveat? The sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich.

Sugar everywhere

While fruits and vegetables and foods with whole grains are offered, the school lunch menu has several items that are high in sugar, including:


Free cookies

Despite how unhealthy the lunch menu is, my kids are allowed to purchase it every once in a while.

Although I want them to eat healthy, whole foods most of the time, I also don’t want school lunch to be a power struggle or something they think is forbidden, which can create unhealthy eating habits down the line.

Nevertheless, I was blindsided when my daughters told me that after purchasing lunch one day, they were given free cookies. As I came to learn, kids are given free cookies on Fridays and on their birthdays.

You might think I sound like an uptight mom, but I don’t understand why the school (or the food service provider) thinks it’s OK to give them cookies without my permission.

My kids can have cookies, but not during the school day.

Junk food is served as a “snack”

My kids’ school encourages parents to have lunch with their kids, so from time to time I do.

Last year while I was sitting with my daughter in the cafeteria, one of the cafeteria aids walked up to the front of the room and with mic in hand, announced it was snack time.

“Snack?,” I asked my 5-year-old. It was only 15 minutes into their 30 minute lunch time.

When I hear the word snack, I think about something small that tides my kids over until the next meal and is most certainly something they eat between meals.

Yet what my kids’ school dubs a snack, is actually a junk food treat: chips, ice cream, popsicles crackers and cookies.

One of the foods they sell are Nacho Cheese Doritos.

Sure, it satisfies the National School Lunch Program guidelines because it has whole grains (corn), but it’s processed, made with GMOs and contains artificial ingredients and artificial food dyes.

Take maltodextrin, which has an even higher glycemic index than sugar and evidence suggests it can alter gut bacteria and lead to allergic reactions and food intolerances. This is definitely not something our kids should be eating, especially during the school day.

Oh and did I mention, less than 3 hours later when the kids are packing up for the day, they get another snack?

Most of the food is fake

Nearly all of the school lunch items that are offered are highly processed, made with factory-farmed animal products, and are frozen foods that come out of a package and are re-heated. 

Take a look at some of the foods they sell:

  • crispy chicken patty          
  • general tso’s chicken
  • beef nachos with tortilla chips 
  • hot dogs                  
  • tater tots
  • processed deli meats                                                  
  • popcorn chicken
  • chicken nuggets
  • mozzarella sticks
  • pizza
  • hamburgers and cheeseburgers
  • French toast sticks

While they do serve fruits and vegetables every day, it’s not exactly fresh. The packages of apple slices for example, are prepared with preservatives that give them a 21-day shelf life.

Totally unbalanced

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend a healthy plate is made up of 1/2 fruits and vegetables, 1/4 protein and 1/4 whole grains.

In my kids’ school, the kids are required to pick a fruit or a vegetable, but I doubt it makes up half the plate. They do offer salads as the main dish every day, but I’m sure the amount of kids that purchase salads is negligible, if non-existent.

Besides, some of the meal options seem totally unbalanced and only meet the requirements.

Take the yogurt or a cheese stick with a bagel meal and the macaroni and cheese with a wheat bread stick meal—not exactly the healthy, balanced meals we should be teaching our kids to eat.

A lack of healthy fats

Healthy fats like those found in fish, avocado and olive oil are essential to kids health, but they’re not a major part of the school lunch menu. The one caveat? The sunflower seed butter and jelly sandwich.

Sugar everywhere

While fruits and vegetables and foods with whole grains are offered, the school lunch menu has several items that are high in sugar, including:


Free cookies

Despite how unhealthy the lunch menu is, my kids are allowed to purchase it every once in a while.

Although I want them to eat healthy, whole foods most of the time, I also don’t want school lunch to be a power struggle or something they think is forbidden, which can create unhealthy eating habits down the line.

Nevertheless, I was blindsided when my daughters told me that after purchasing lunch one day, they were given free cookies. As I came to learn, kids are given free cookies on Fridays and on their birthdays.

You might think I sound like an uptight mom, but I don’t understand why the school (or the food service provider) thinks it’s OK to give them cookies without my permission.

My kids can have cookies, but not during the school day.

Author Details
Julie Revelant teaches parents how to raise children who are healthy, adventurous eaters. Through blog posts and videos, her goal is to shift the conversation from short-term, problem picky eating to lifelong, healthy eating and healthy futures.