Back to School: Lunches Evolve With Variety

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Mom’s school cafeteria may have offered a lunch of a hamburger, fruit, chips and milk. Your child’s dish is trendier and might include international flavors and a salad bar. As children return to school in August, these tastes, smells and serving methods should entice children to eat a solid meal each day, says a University of Florida nutrition expert.

School administrators recognize their role in feeding children and try to keep current so children will consume their recommended daily allowance of vitamins and minerals, said Kaley Mialki, a registered dietitian with the UF/IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program.

“Just like any other place that serves food, school nutrition departments must provide meals that appeal to their customers,” Mialki said. “Students enjoy eating global flavors, plant-based meals and customizable meals.”

“Also, with more stringent nutrition requirements for school meals, food and nutrition service departments must find creative ways to sell healthier meals,” she said.

For example, the international flavors with bold spices provide flavor without too much sodium, saturated fat or added sugar, Mialki said.

Mialki gives some other examples of how public schools are changing the content and methods of serving meals:

  • Interesting packaging: salad shakers, protein boxes, grab-and-go style meals and serving portable meals out of food trucks.
  • Customizable meals: salad bars, condiment stations, build-your-own meal stations.
  • Foods with fewer and simpler ingredients: limiting artificial flavors, colors, and preservatives; focusing on fresher ingredients.
  • Plant-based meals: vegetarian and vegan options.
  • Easy, made-from-scratch recipes.
  • Local purchasing: produce and meat from local farms.

All meals served in school cafeterias must meet federal guidelines, Mialki said. Some of these include specific portion sizes for different food groups, minimum and maximum calorie ranges, a limit on saturated fat and sodium, no trans fats, low-fat or fat-free milk and a variety of colorful vegetables.

Additionally, the school district may define more stringent requirements in their school wellness policy, she said. School food and nutrition service departments must plan school menus to meet all of these requirements. They must also work with teachers, school nurses, parents and students to provide meal accommodations for students with special dietary needs.

College students also return to school in August, and their dining experiences also are getting chic. In some cases, they mirror the experience of a public school cafeteria. The website, conducted a survey last year that showed the following trends:

  • Expanded dining hours, including late-night options.
  • Faster service. College students often desire grab-and-go food options.
  • Diners everywhere are interested in options that they can customize.
  • Ethnic foods. Interest in bold and spicy flavors is growing.
  • Environmentally friendly practices. More than 90 percent of the college-campus dining operators surveyed said they engage in waste reduction or plan to do so.


By: Brad Buck, 352-294-3303,

The mission of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences is to develop knowledge relevant to agricultural, human and natural resources and to make that knowledge available to sustain and enhance the quality of human life. With more than a dozen research facilities, 67 county Extension offices, and award-winning students and faculty in the UF College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, UF/IFAS works to bring science-based solutions to the state’s agricultural and natural resources industries, and all Florida residents. Visit the UF/IFAS web site at and follow us on social media at @UF_IFAS.



Avatar photo
Posted: July 10, 2018

Category: UF/IFAS
Tags: Back To School, Family Nutrition Program, Flavor, Kaley Mialki, News, Nutrition, School Lunches, Trends

Subscribe For More Great Content

IFAS Blogs Categories