A Guide to Eating Healthy in Your School Cafeteria
By Stephanie Lynn, age 23, Massachusetts
A typical school day for me when I was in high school went something like this:
I'd wake up after only 4-6 hours of sleep with just enough time to shower, get dressed, and run out the door, then slide into my classroom desk with only a minute or two 'til the bell. Around nine AM my stomach would start rumbling from not having eaten breakfast. No worries. I only needed to starve for two or three more hours before lunch.
Imagining myself back in high school, I switch to the present tense. The lunch bell finally rings, and I rush into the line so I have plenty of time to finish my lunch. The choices for lunch today are chicken nuggets or a soft pretzel with cheese. I choose the chicken nuggets because I believe they are healthy - certainly better than eating a pretzel. The cafeteria lady throws a whopping six nuggets on my tray. I choose buttered pasta with veggies and a peach cup on the side, grab a chocolate milk, and pay. On the way to my table, I pause to dollop way too much barbecue sauce on my nuggets.
After finishing my lunch, I'm still a little hungry, but it's only a few minutes before the bell. Once I arrive home, if Mom or Dad isn't preparing a well-balanced meal, we are left to eat leftovers, TV dinners (which are so not filling), instant ramen, or canned vegetable soup. I have some combination of the four throughout the evening and head to bed only to wake up and do it again the next day.
During my lunch, I'd noticed that some kids around me only ate small salads from the salad bar or barely ate anything at all. Others' lunches, for instance, consisted of two zebra cakes, a slice of pizza, french fries, maybe some Skittles, and a soda they'd brought from home. One girl always brought her lunch. It always consisted of a thermos of hot soup, a small veggie sandwich in wheat bread or pita, healthy crackers or nuts, and fresh fruit. It seemed almost odd and out of place.
Cassondra, age 16
Can You Eat Healthy at School?I sometimes wonder if it's possible to eat healthy in a school cafeteria. Although many studies have been conducted on the food being served, it seems like things never change. Maybe like my health food friend, the only way to eat healthy is by bringing your own lunch.
Unlike most kids in the cafeteria, I always tried to make healthy choices. Although chicken nuggets are really not healthy* (read my article and also the footnote below), I really didn't do too badly all things considered. I mean the chocolate milk could have been replaced with 1% milk and I didn't need so much barbecue sauce. But I always bought something like peaches over the chocolate pudding or a cookie. Okay, I'll admit I sometimes fell into temptation, but it's hard when sweets are staring you in the face every day. I have to say that the school lunch program really blew it by offering soft pretzels and nachos with cheese as main courses!
I surveyed a number of SDM staff and fans to see what teen eating habits are like today. It seems things haven't really changed since I left high school about five years ago. I used their responses to create tips to help you make better choices in the school cafeteria.
Rocio, age 17
Start by ditching the soda.A lot of you admit to drinking at least one soda a day, often more. In reality, even diet sodas have no nutritional value and can lead to unwanted weight gain according to scientific studies.**
Instead, drink water, 1% milk, tea, or juice with little or no added sugar. The occasional vitamin water or sports drink is okay. However, I wouldn't suggest having more than one a day, as most contain a lot of sugar and calories.
Avoid greasy french fries, chips, and hash browns.I'll admit I love greasy food, but these processed foods are just not healthy for you. And no, they should not be counted as a vegetable!
Instead, order lightly buttered pasta, rice, or mashed potatoes on the side. If you're really brave, clamp your nose and eat the veggies. Most of you don't even get close to the amount of daily vegetable servings needed. Leafy greens are vital to your health. If you really can't bear the cafeteria steamed veggies, then try the salad bar. Load it up with good veggies and chick peas. Go light on the dressing, or better yet, squirt some lemon juice on top. Hopefully your school provides spinach leaves as well as iceberg lettuce. Iceberg lettuce has no more nutrition than air. If they don't provide spinach leaves, ask your cafeteria ladies to start offering it. They will eventually be so annoyed with you that they'll give in to your request. If you decide to skip the veggies at school altogether make sure you get the recommended four to six servings at home.
Mayra, age 17
Step away from the pizza and burgers!Sure, pizza is fun maybe once or twice a week, but it's so loaded with calories and doesn't really fill you up enough to be worth it. If you do eat the pizza, skip the pepperoni. Also, avoid eating the burgers, especially cheeseburgers. We all agree that school burgers are usually not made of 100% real beef anyway. My weakness in high school was always the steak and cheese sandwich. But it's better to get your daily red meat at home, where your parents can prepare fresh red meats rather than frozen crap. You may think that chicken patties are a healthy alternative to red meat. Bad news. A lean steak or burger is healthier. Like nuggets (with or without the "Mc"), chicken patties contain chicken, but also usually contain a dubious chemical cocktail (again, the first footnote below).
Instead grab a turkey, tuna, or veggie sandwich. Fish provides protein like the beef in your burger, though you should avoid battered and fried "mystery fish" filets.
Many schools now offer fresh sandwiches, but they hide them in one of the back fridges. So you may not even realize your school offers them. If they don't, then consider bringing your own sandwich. Remember to limit or skip the mayonnaise. That's where a lot of unwanted fat and calories come in. Cheese consumption should be limited as well. Be sure to pack some fresh fruit or nuts. Homemade unbuttered or lightly buttered popcorn would make for a good side too (but not SmartFood!)
Stay away from the dessert line and vending machines.And by "away" I mean far away. It's so easy to fall into the temptation if you're sitting right next to a vending machine full of sugar and chips. In exchange for the limited or zero nutrition you get from these snacks, you're ingesting a large amount of calories, random harmful chemicals and dyes, and preservatives. Hardly worth it in the long run.
Eat Breakfast!!!I never ate breakfast in high school, but looking back I really wish I did. Having a healthy boost in the morning will keep your energy up and help you focus on your schoolwork and tests. Nutritionists have also proven that not eating breakfast leads to eating more greasy and unhealthy foods later in the day. Plus, by eating breakfast you won't be completely starving by lunchtime, so it will be easier to avoid filling up on cupcakes and candy. Finally, as illogical as it may sound, it has recently been proven that skipping breakfast actually leads to weight gain.***
Amber Nikole, age 16
Take a MultivitaminTaking a daily multivitamin after dinner every day will ensure that you get all your necessary vitamins. Remember, for vitamin supplements to be effective, they need to be taken with or following a main meal. Of course, this doesn't give you an excuse to skip the veggies and only eat pizza, fries, and candy. Synthesized vitamins are not as complete and effective as naturally occurring ones in veggies and the like. (Scientists still do not completely understand why this is so.) But putting all the steps together could help you live a longer healthier life.
5-Day Lunch PlanMonday - Sandwich, with home prepared popcorn or crackers and fresh fruit. Include tomato, spinach leaves, sliced carrots, cucumbers, pickles, peppers, and red onion in your turkey or tuna sandwich. Limit or avoid mayonnaise and skip the cheese.
Tuesday - Spaghetti and sauce, with bread stick, lightly dressed salad, and fruit cup. The extra carbs today will help you get through study hall and soccer practice.
Wednesday - Salad bar, with pita bread. Load up your salad with spinach leaves, tomatoes, carrots, cucumbers, cauliflower, broccoli, chick peas, olives, peppers, red onion, and any other veggies the bar might have. Go light on the dressing or squirt with lemon juice.
Thursday - Tacos, with corn, and fruit cup. Tacos are not exactly "health food", but they are not all that bad for you either. Be sure to stuff your tacos with plenty of veggies, like tomatoes, lettuce, and salsa, so you're not just eating beef and chips. Also, skip the sour cream and go easy on the cheese - it's just extra fat you don't need.
Friday - Pizza Splurge. Like I said before it's okay to have pizza once a week. Just avoid having your pizza with french fries if possible. Opt for a healthier side like ones mentioned in this article.
Abbie, age 13
If you need any further motivation to eat healthy at lunchtime, remember that for many of us the pounds we'd like to lose or keep off are in the choices we make in the cafeteria line.
♥ Stephanie Lynn
Photo CreditsFirst photo - SDM site model Alba from Florida;
Second & third photos - SDM site model Katherine from Florida.
These footnotes can change your life!* The ingredients listed in the flyer suggest a lot of thought goes into a nugget, that and a lot of corn. Of the thirty-eight ingredients it takes to make a McNugget, I counted thirteen that can be derived from corn: the corn-fed chicken itself; modified cornstarch (to bind the pulverized chicken meat); mono-, tri-, and diglycerides (emulsifiers, which keep the fats and water from separating); dextrose; lecithin (another emulsifier); chicken broth (to restore some of the flavor that processing leeches out); yellow corn flour and more modified cornstarch (for the batter); cornstarch (a filler); vegetable shortening; partially hydrogenated corn oil; and citric acid as a preservative. A couple of other plants take part in the nugget: There's some wheat in the batter, and on any given day the hydrogenated oil could come from soybeans, canola, or cotton rather than corn, depending on the market price and availability.
According to the handout, McNuggets also contain several completely synthetic ingredients, quasi edible substances that ultimately come not from a corn or soybean field but form a petroleum refinery or chemical plant. These chemicals are what make modern processed food possible, by keeping the organic materials in them from going bad or looking strange after months in the freezer or on the road. Listed first are the "leavening agents": sodium aluminum phosphate, mono-calcium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, and calcium lactate. These are antioxidants added to keep the various animal and vegetable fats involved in a nugget from turning rancid. Then there are "anti-foaming agents" like dimethylpolysiloxene, added to the cooking oil to keep the starches from binding to air molecules, so as to produce foam during the fry. The problem is evidently grave enough to warrant adding a toxic chemical to the food: According to the Handbook of Food Additives, dimethylpolysiloxene is a suspected carcinogen and an established mutagen, tumorigen, and reproductive effector; it's also flammable. But perhaps the most alarming ingredient in a Chicken McNugget is tertiary butylhydroquinone, or TBHQ, an antioxidant derived from petroleum that is either sprayed directly on the nugget or the inside of the box it comes in to "help preserve freshness." According to A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, TBHQ is a form of butane (i.e. lighter fluid) the FDA allows processors to use sparingly in our food: It can comprise no more than 0.02 percent of the oil in a nugget. Which is probably just as well, considering that ingesting a single gram of TBHQ can cause "nausea, vomiting, ringing in the ears, delirium, a sense of suffocation, and collapse." Ingesting five grams of TBHQ can kill."
The Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan
*** Fact: Studies show that people who skip breakfast and eat fewer times during the day tend to be heavier than people who eat a healthy breakfast and eat four or five times a day. This may be because people who skip meals tend to feel hungrier later on, and eat more than they normally would. It may also be that eating many small meals throughout the day helps people control their appetites.
Source: NIDDK, National Institute of Health