USDA Sets Guidelines for Healthier School Meals

Girl running while flying kite

Posted February 3, 2012

Beginning July 1, 2012, school meals are headed for a healthy change. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released new meal requirements that will raise standards for the first time in more than fifteen years and improve the health and nutrition of the nearly 32 million kids that participate in school meal programs every school day.

Meal programs will have to reduce sodium, saturated fat and trans fat, and fruits and vegetables will have to be made available every day. Not only will the meal plans have more nutritious food choices, schools will offer fat-free and low-fat milk only and provide child-appropriate portion sizes to help them maintain a healthy weight.

Before the new rules, a standard elementary school lunch menu might have consisted of a hot dog with a bun, canned pears, carrots and celery with ranch dressing, and chocolate milk. A healthier meal under the new standards might include whole-wheat spaghetti with meat sauce, green beans, broccoli, low-fat ranch dip, kiwi halves and low-fat milk.

The USDA built the new guidelines around recommendations from a panel of experts convened by the Institute of Medicine. The standards were also updated with key changes from the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans—the Federal government's benchmark for nutrition. The healthier meal requirements are also a key component of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act signed into law by President Obama. The new USDA guidelines:

  • Ensure students are offered both fruits and vegetables every day of the week
  • Substantially increase offerings of whole grain-rich foods
  • Offer only fat-free or low-fat milk varieties
  • Increase the focus on reducing the amounts of saturated fat, trans fats and sodium
  • Limit portion sizes based on the age of children being served to ensure proper calories

These new guidelines affirm the nutrition choices the We Can!® program encourages parents to make for their families. For more tips on how to make healthy nutrition choices for your family, please visit our Eat Right section.

You can read the full USDA press release at

Last Updated: February 13, 2013