School Lunch Is the Healthiest Meal of the Day. Here’s Why.

A new study has good news about school nutrition and bad news about what parents are buying at the grocery store.

Two kids high five in the lunch room

School cafeteria lunch, when portrayed in popular media, like television and movies, often looks disgusting. “Mystery meat” served in trays on a steam table, next to once-frozen vegetables and gloop. But the popular portrayal of cafeteria lunch — for many kids one of the most consistent meals of their day — leaves a lot out of the picture. In fact, school lunch can be great. And it’s so great that a new study shows that the nutritional quality of school food has improved so much that it’s the healthiest meal of the day for many kids.

The study, published Monday in JAMA, surveyed 20,905 children and 39,757 adults from 2003-2004 to 2017-2018. In addition to schools, it also gauged the nutritional value of foods from other sources, notably grocery stores and restaurants.

Researchers used two sets of criteria, set by the American Heart Association and the USDA, respectively, to evaluate how healthy foods obtained from different sources were.

Study Found Dramatic Improvement in School Lunches

Between 2003 and 2018, the percentage of “poor nutritional quality food consumed from schools” decreased from 55 to 24 percent. Most of the improvement happened after 2010 when the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act—the centerpiece of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative—was passed. Among other changes, the law created new nutrition standards for schools including more fruits and vegetables and limits on sodium and calories.

“It shows you how a single policy passed by Congress can dramatically improve the nutrition of millions of children,” study author Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian told CNN.

Grocery Store Choices Aren’t Changing For The Better

Unfortunately, that school lunch is often the healthiest meal kids eat isn’t just a testament to improved school nutrition standards. It’s also indicative of the poor nutritional quality of the other foods kids eat.

The amount of unhealthy food kids eat from the grocery store decreased by just eight points over the 15-year span of the study, from 53 to 45 percent. For restaurants, the decrease was from 85 to 80 percent. But while restaurant meals aren’t as healthy as those purchased at the grocery store, encouraging healthier grocery trips would be more impactful because two-thirds of the food kids eat comes from the grocery store.

Marion Nestle, a nutrition professor at NYU, suggested some potential fixes to CNN. She said true cost accounting (charging more for unhealthy foods and less for healthy foods), more limits on how unhealthy foods are advertised to kids, and the placement of healthier foods in prime locations at grocery stories (including at eye level for kids) are measures that could help parents and kids go on healthier grocery store runs.