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The School Lunch Myth

Planning meals for more people than, say, yourself, gets pretty complicated pretty fast. You aim for healthy and happy, but all your good family dinner ideas get whittled down thanks to allergies, attitudes and everyone's various (and rarely overlapping) food prohibitions. Even junky meals at my house create a push-and-pull. I often rejoice when one or more members is eating somewhere else that evening. I mean, why so many damn opinions?

So, yeah. I get, albeit on a vastly smaller scale, what headaches the lunchrooms across America must be causing their menu creators. New federal guidelines have changed the requirements in recent years to include more whole grains, fresh fruit or fresh vegetables, and low-fat or fat-free milk—and that servings be in age-appropriate amounts, calorie-wise. There are frequent accounts of food going in the trash, kids saying yuck to the green, teens complaining that they need at least twice the amount to get through the day plus football practice.

RELATED: Tweens and the Lunch Table

But reports of the demise of the National School Lunch Program have been greatly exaggerated. At the start of this year, major media outlets were frothing at the mouth about a supposed exodus of schools participating in the program. Yes, a few have left. But by a few? I mean, literally, a few. Like, three. A total of 5,000 students no longer eating meals with the kind of nutritional profile Michelle Obama and others had fought so hard for.

For perspective, you should know that leaves 31 million kids at 100,000 U.S. schools still bellying up to the low-sodium, no-fries bar.

Did your parents grow up on nuggets? Did you?

No, they're not eating everything—not yet. Yes, there are still complaints. But there are also cafeteria directors working hard to get it right and to create menus of foods that are both good for kids and appealing to eat. And they're doing this within the stricter guidelines and budgets that only increased six cents per meal with the changes. Anyone who has switched from buying bulky processed foods to fresh ingredients knows that, calorie for calorie, the latter is more expensive.

Still, people complain that kids won't eat the un-breaded foods, and they might have a point. But everyone knows that if kids are hungry enough, they'll eat what they're given. Kid's palates also might need to adjust to the difference, but that's no reason to just go back to deep-fried burritos and tater tots. (I mean, yum. But regularly?)

Over at Scientific American, Patrick Mustain argues against the idea that kids just can't eat healthy food, that kids will only eat foods that are made for a "kid's palate." After all, he points out, chicken nuggets and Goldfish crackers are a relatively new edible invention. Did your parents grow up on nuggets? Did you?

Mustain also references the science behind neophobia, the immediate dislike of new things, and says studies have shown that the more exposure people have to new foods (even if it's just visual exposure), the more willing they are to eventually try it and like it.

RELATED: What Happened to Sandwiches?

His final argument? The new lunches work. Kids at schools that had already been offering meals according to the new rules—some starting way back in 2005—ate more fresh fruits and vegetables. Which makes sense. Because that's what was for lunch.

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