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Children's Health | School Lunch Program Promotes Healthy Eating

School Lunch Program Promotes Healthy Eating

February 21, 2008—Innovative school lunch programs may be one way to promote healthy eating in kids, supporting parents’ efforts to ensure their children get the recommended servings of healthful foods known to decrease obesity and diseases in later life. A new study suggests that nutrition education, incentives, and offering a salad bar in the school cafeteria may increase the amount of fruits and vegetables and decrease the amount of fat that kids eat.

In the new study, three elementary schools introduced a salad bar into the lunch program. Children could freely choose the hot lunch program or use the salad bar, which included four different choices of fruits and vegetables each day as well as sources of protein, dairy, and grains. Children using the salad bar were required to have four different food groups on their trays and were allowed to return for seconds. The school encouraged use of the salad bar through a school assembly, visits to a farmer’s market, and artwork. Children who used the salad bar also received a pencil or a sticker and were interviewed about the types and amount of foods they ate.

Compared with before the salad bar was available, children ate more fruits and vegetables and less fat and cholesterol after the salad bar was offered.

Research has shown that a healthy eating pattern early in childhood is important for promoting health and preventing disease. But parents are often at a loss when it comes to getting their children to eat more fruits and vegetables and less fat, as children tend to choose high-sugar and high-fat foods over healthier options. In fact, one study suggests that only 20% of kids eat five or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day, the amount recommended by the US Department of Agriculture.

Healthy habits at home

Here are some tips for parents from the American Heart Association’s guidelines for healthy nutrition in children:

• Encourage a variety of fruits and vegetables at meal time every day.

• Use fresh or frozen vegetables and fruit. (Check the labels of canned options, as these may be high in salt or sugar.)

• Limit sweetened soft drinks and fruit juices.

• Eat whole-grain, rather than refined-grained, foods.

• Help kids get the necessary one hour or more of vigorous physical activity each day.

• Model good eating habits to your children, leading by example so that children will “do as you do” rather than “do as you say.”

• Discuss your child’s nutritional requirements with your pediatrician, since the amount of fruit and vegetable servings a child needs may vary based on their age, weight, and physical activity level.

“Diets high in a variety of fruits and vegetables not only help in weight management but also help reduce the risk of some cancers, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, and type 2 diabetes,” said Wendelin Slusser, MD, and his colleagues from the University of California–Los Angeles. “The World Health Organization estimates that 19% of gastrointestinal cancer, 31% of heart disease, and 11% of stroke worldwide are attributable to insufficient intake of fruits and vegetables.”

(Public Health Nutr 2006;10:1490–96; Circulation 2005;112:2061–75)

Jane Hart, MD, board-certified in internal medicine, serves in a variety of professional roles including consultant, journalist, and educator. Dr. Hart, a Clinical Instructor at Case Medical School in Cleveland, Ohio, writes extensively about health and wellness and a variety of other topics for nationally recognized organizations, Web sites, and print publications. Sought out for her expertise in the areas of integrative and preventive medicine, she is frequently quoted by national and local media. Dr. Hart is a professional lecturer for healthcare professionals, consumers, and youth and is a regular corporate speaker.

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The health information contained in this site is not intended as medical advice and should not be considered a substitute for appropriate medical care. Any products mentioned in studies cited in Healthnotes articles are not necessarily endorsed by Bastyr. As with any product, consult with a natural health practitioner to discuss what may be best for you.

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