Reader email: Portion sizes

I am lucky to have amazing readers. I love how you teach me about things. It started out last year when I first started blogging. I didn’t know a thing about school lunch (evidence: I decided to eat it for a year) and, well, thousands of you educated me about the ins and outs of regulations, food politics, and ingredients. Eventually I started questioning my own food consumption and now I’m even gluten free. I credit you, my readers, for helping me find the answers.

Occasionally I get an email from a reader that I want to share. I’m going to share readers’ emails and questions and try my best to answer them. Of course just as before I don’t pretend to have all the answers. If you feel so inclined, pitch in and help me answer a question or two. I hope this will be a regular feature.

Question from a reader:

Every school I have worked in, without fail, has given the exact same portion size to each child regardless of age, dietary needs, or interest. In one school teacher lunches were also the exact same size. 

For example, a kindergarten student receives the same portion size as a 5th grader. For years I wondered how it is possible that the FDA USDA has ignored the most basic constructs of food health which is caloric intake balanced with the food pyramid. A kindergartner does not need a 450 calorie lunch and inevitably most of the food gets thrown away OR is eaten so quickly due to time constraints that the child develops a bad habit of swallowing food and not tasting it. 

I have wondered about this before and blogged about it briefly in September last year. The lunches I ate all year last year were the identical lunches that children between ages three and five were receiving as well as children as old as twelve. My son is closing in on age three and there’s no way he could chop through a Salibury steak patty in ten minutes, not to mention buns, fruit cups, etc.

Consulting a USDA document (from the year 2000 — so it could have been updated. please let me know if you can find anything more recent), I found that when meal size is determined differently depending on meal planning approach. There are a few ways to calculate nutrients in a typical school lunch. First, there is the Traditional Food-Based Menu Planning Approach. According to the USDA, “schools must comply with specific component and quantity requirements by offering five food items from four food components. These components are: meat/meat alternate, vegetables and/or fruits, grains/breads, and milk. Minimum portion sizes are established by ages and grade groups.” Then a chart appears:

 Differences in portion sizes by age have been circled in blue.

And the second part of the chart (that got cut off when I took screen shots):

Under the Traditional Food-Based Meal Planning Approach, there is indeed differences in recommended portion-sizes across the age groups that typically reside inside of the average elementary school. One size does not fit all.

What about the Enhanced Food-Based Menu Planning Approach? It is broadly defined as “a variation of the Traditional Menu Planning Approach.  It is designed to increase calories from low-fat food sources in order to meet the Dietary Guidelines. The five food components are retained, but the component quantities for the weekly servings of vegetables and fruits and grains/breads are increased.” Their chart looks very similar to the other one:

Um, whoa. Here’s where I’m getting confused. When I first read this chart, I thought requirements were going down as kids aged. But that did not compute. The far right column is an extra “option” for K-3!? So what do the kids need to be eating exactly? This smells fishy. If any of you know exactly what is going on here, let me know!

The second half of the chart:

It’s really no wonder that the USDA’s regulations are hard for people to understand.

And then there’s the Nutrient Standard Menu Approach (along with the Assisted Nutrient Standard Menu Approach). This approach uses “approved computer software to analyze the specific nutrient content of menu items automatically while menus are being planned. It is designed to assist menu planners in choosing food items that create nutritious meals and meet the nutrient standards.” And its chart looks something like this:

Curious “Optional K-3” column appears again.

Mrs. Q’s Answer: It looks like the schools that the reader has worked in have either employed the Enhanced Menu Approach of the Nutrient Standard Approach to plan their menus, which is how schools with a K-6 population to offer the same lunch to a wide age range.

Correct me if I’m wrong here.

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18 Responses to Reader email: Portion sizes

  1. Heather July 19, 2011 at 6:41 pm #

     Perhaps it is also important to note that the heat and serve foods only come in one size package and do not  make allowances for the age or grade of the child consuming it.

    • Anonymous July 20, 2011 at 9:44 pm #

      Yes and the reader is asking how that is possible. I’m trying to answer that. I guess there are ways that can be allowed. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Stacy July 19, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    Let me just say, I love your blog. I recently was checking my schools website trying to gather information for the upcoming school year for my children and, just for fun, clicked on the schools menu link. Because my children pack, I have not looked this information up online. Not only does the school offer nutrition information for the meals provided, this special note was located on the site:

    Because we recognize the valuable contribution of milk to a child’s diet, effective
    Wednesday, September 8, 2010 Staunton City Schools will begin providing a milk
    substitution for lactose intolerant children.   Shenandoah’s Pride is now offering
    a milk substitute for lactose intolerance, and according to regulations, it is nutritionally
    equivalent to fluid milk.  Dairy Ease, produced by Land O’ Lakes, is a fat-free,
    100% Lactose-free milk. 
     The USDA program does not allow a school to offer other beverages, such as juice,
     to substitute for milk in the school meal programs. 
     
    The site continues on with may interesting links and facts including a USDA School Food recipes link. I still feel that the lunches I pack are better than what is offered, however, it is nice to know my school district offers this information. I cant help but wonder if my school is following these recipes or are the lunches brought in to be reheated? I may need to research this. In case you are interested, the link is http://staunton.k12.va.us/15451012711526447/blank/browse.asp?A=383&BMDRN=2000&BCOB=0&C=55432

    Keep up the good work!

    • Katie July 20, 2011 at 6:39 am #

      I thought the same about peanut butter! 6 tablespoons is 3 servings according to my jar in the fridge. Who eats that much peanut butter at one meal?

      • Katie July 20, 2011 at 6:41 am #

        Sorry, I meant to reply to guest at 1:28 am who also commented on the pb and yogurt.

    • Anonymous July 20, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

      Thanks! Your school sounds terrific. How great that they offer lactose free!

  3. Sjohnson July 20, 2011 at 3:59 am #

    The optional category for K-3 is for school districts that have different grade ‘groupings.’  For example, many school districts here in California have elementary K-5 or K-6, but others, even neighboring districts have K-3 schools that don’t have the older grades.  It is the ‘optional’ K-3 category that is supposed to guide the nutritional team for the school districts with those differing grade groupings.
    Hope that is a little insight 🙂
    Sophie http://www.choicelunch.com

    • Anonymous July 20, 2011 at 9:45 pm #

      That’s helpful — Thank you!

  4. Sjohnson July 20, 2011 at 4:03 am #

    Another note: even if you use food-based menu planning, or enhanced food-based menu planning (and under the proposed changes by the USDA for 2012/13 we will ALL have to use food-based menu planning) you still have to meet the caloric and nutrient levels and values (664 calories, etc.) that guide the nutrient-standard menu planning approach.
    Sophie http://www.choicelunch.com

  5. Guest July 20, 2011 at 5:28 am #

    Some of those recommended quantities in the traditional food-based chart are insane! My daughter’s going into seventh grade and has a very hearty appetite, and even she couldn’t eat a cup and a half of yogurt or six tablespoons of peanut butter at one sitting. I use 2-3 tablespoons max when I make a sandwich for her lunch, and that’s more than enough to cover both slices of bread. Six tablespoons would be like a peanut butter brick.

  6. Ldesantis July 20, 2011 at 3:09 pm #

    Well,  I have been working in school nutrition for almost 4 years as a Nutrition Director.  I’m a chef w/ a restaurant background and a culinary education.  Having said this, these guidelines are so confusing I’m still trying to figure it out.
     What I have learned is that most school, at least in Massachusetts use the “Traditional Menu Planning” option.  The reason they have different age groups is because some of the school are mixed grade levels and they need to accommodate many for ease of food production.  I’m not saying this is right but so many things are stream-lined because there are so many mouths to feed as well as food and labor costs.   Also, there are so many guidelines because unfortunately some lack food experience and training/ education.       ” Lunch Ladies” a lot of the time get trained on the job.  These guidelines and USDA materials are how they get there education.  The portion sizes are what “nutritionally is recommended”  6 Tbsp. of peanut butter is an insane amount to give a child but that is what the proper amount of protein translates to. 
    In my opinion there are to many people making these guidelines who are nutritionists.  In “chef’s speak”  we always say you eat with your eyes, if it looks appealing and then taste good kids will come back for more. A certified nutritionist doesn’t have a clue how to make things appealing they are just going by the numbers and calorie count. 

  7. Anonymous July 20, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    At the bottom of the protein section of the chart, it does say:

    “The following may be used to meet no more than 50% of the requirement and must be used in combination with any of the above:  Peanuts, soy nuts, tree nuts, or seeds, as listed in the program guidance, or an equivalent quantity of any combination of the above meat/meat alternate (1 ounce of nuts/seeds equals 1 ounce of cooked lean meat, poultry or fish.”

    In other words, you can’t serve peanut butter as the only protein source in one lunch and meet the guideline.  So the conclusion that the guidelines are telling schools to feed 6 tbsp. of peanut butter to 7th thru 12th graders as the protein in one lunch is just not true.

    • Anonymous July 20, 2011 at 9:49 pm #

      Hmm, that’s an interesting catch Kim. Maybe someone else can add to this because PB&Js are routinely the protein of meals for kids. 

      • Anonymous July 21, 2011 at 1:53 am #

        Maybe there’s typically another protein included?  Yogurt or cheese maybe?  Or soy?  I wouldn’t be surprised to see soy in those funky Pop-Tart-like processed prepackaged PB&J’s in your school lunches last year (I just got queazy remembering those).  Or maybe that constraint in the footnote isn’t imposed on programs that aren’t food based.

  8. Lauralee Moss July 20, 2011 at 9:55 pm #

    Very interesting. I had never thought of this, probably because I work in a high school. Nice to know.

  9. CompFixr October 5, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    What do you think, Chef Robert Irvine goes to school and shows them how to cook a great lunch for a lot less than this packaged garbage they are dishing out? Just a thought, “School Lunch Impossible” gotta see this one…

  10. Bonnie December 18, 2011 at 11:00 am #

    I work in a school cafeteria in one of the largest school district in the US. We do not have prepack microwave looking foods. We offer yogurt meals, fresh made salads daily, choice of fresh fruit, any can fruit used is in fruit juice, we make our sauce for pasta, and for our tacos. We are not PRIVATIZED as apparently your district is. Perhaps more lobbying for funds would do some good.
    Our FNS program has ranked in the top 5 several years in a row.
    I am the cafeteria manager and I take great strides to make sure the children in our school take the appropriate choses offered them. I also have 500 hrs logged in nutrition, foundations and sanitation. My staff all have to attend classes in the same.
    I would look to the district for support this can be achieved as we have proved here in Florida
    Bonnie

    • Maria September 15, 2012 at 11:50 am #

      I hope you can answer a question for me. I teach kindergarten. When I get my school lunch tray for myself, it has exactly the same sized portions as my students. It’s never enough food for me and I pay more as an adult. I’ve never understood this and have asked our school manager and she says that is the rule because of her numbers. It would be so nice to have a warm lunch while working. We only get twenty minutes to eat which is not enough time to heat up a mea. I end up gobbling a sandwich or apple.

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