The government has focused a great deal of time, money and energy on improving children’s diets, with a particular emphasis on the school lunch menu. A much-needed 2012 overhaul of nutritional standards has been phased in over the past few years as part of the effort. According to preliminary 2014 data from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), nearly 100,000 schools or institutions serve school lunches to 30.4 million students each day at a cost of $12.65 billion as part of the National School Lunch Program (NSLP).

It’s been a big effort, but with nationwide concerns over poor childhood nutrition, low levels of physical fitness and high rates of obesity, it’s clear that something needed to change. But why the focus on school lunch? Although there’s been some controversy about issues such as student participation, food waste and cost, the NSLP is still an important point of leverage for introducing large numbers of kids to healthier food. And there is also good evidence that many children eat better when they’re at school than they do when they’re at home.

A recent Australian study published in the Journal Appetite compared the eating habits of students on school days versus weekends and holidays. It turns out that consumption of unhealthy “non-core” foods went UP about 32% for primary school students and 30% for secondary school students on non-school days. Plus, secondary school students actually ate 11% LESS healthy “core” foods (including fruits, vegetables, grains, milk and dairy products, lean meats, poultry, fish, nuts and seeds) when they were away from school. On school days, about 20% of all students didn’t eat any fruit and 25% didn’t eat any vegetable. However, on non-school days, those percentages jumped to 30% that didn’t eat any fruit and 40% that didn’t eat any vegetables!

Against this backdrop, it’s worth asking what else can be done to address tough issues like participation rates and food waste. The first thing to admit is that restricting children’s lunch menu options to healthy choices doesn’t necessarily mean that they’ll eat the food they put on their trays. Researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health demonstrated this in a recent study during which they tracked what 274 young students chose for lunch as well as what they actually ate. Here’s what happened: Every student chose a milk carton and a whole grain option, 75% chose a protein item, 59% chose a vegetable and 58% chose a fruit. BUT, only 75% of the kids who chose a protein item actually took at least one bite and only 24% ate one bite or more of their vegetable.

Looking into the reasons behind this behavior, researchers discovered that the issue was generally not the taste of the food. Rather, it was the school cafeteria environment. It turns out that factors such as the length of the lunch period, type of supervision, the way food is cut and served, amount of noise and level of distraction all play a significant role in how much lunch children actually eat.

So while it’s clear that the typical school lunch menu has become significantly better than it used to be, upgrading food choices was just a first step. To improve children’s nutrition, we’ll have to do a better job of understanding and shaping their eating behavior.

As chiropractic physicians, we have a special interest in helping our patients (including kids!) develop healthy habits that prevent illness and injury. If you have questions or concerns about your child’s health, we encourage you to call or visit our office. We’re here to help!