The Advantages & Disadvantages of School Canteens

Once your child enters middle or high school, you may notice big changes in his lunch options. School canteens, commonly referred to as cafeterias in the United States, provide a range of food options from complete, nutritionally-balanced meals to a' la carte choices. Faced with an overwhelming array of choices, and with little nutrition knowledge to guide them, middle and high-school students often struggle making wise lunch choices. New federal requirements through the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act provide nutrition standards for all foods sold at schools beyond the federally-reimbursed meal programs.

Smart Snacks in School

About 95 percent of public schools participate in the National School Lunch Program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, which provides nutrition standards for meals served. Middle and high schools often sell a' la carte items, which in the past have included doughnuts, cookies, chips and ice cream. With the recent addition of the Smart Snacks in Schools rule as part of the Healthy Hunger-Free Kids Act, all foods sold individually must meet set limits for calories, sodium, fat and sugar in addition to promoting whole-grains, fruits and vegetables. These foods must contain 10 percent or more of calcium, potassium, vitamin D or fiber.

Advantages of School Canteens

Convenience is one key advantage of canteens and cafeterias. Students do not need to leave the school for their lunches, which allows more time for eating and means that parents do not need to rush to pack a lunch in the morning. Improving a student's overall nutritional health is another benefit. Schools that participate in the National School Lunch program are required to provide a complete and balanced lunch for students 1. According to the Food Research and Action Center, about 70 percent of students receive free or reduced-cost meals daily 1. Ensuring a student's nutritional needs are met improves behavior, school performance and cognitive development.

Disadvantages of School Canteens

Too many food options can lead to poor food choices for students who may be overwhelmed with their new freedom to choose what they eat for lunch. Parents may be the ones putting money on their students' lunch cards, but they often know little about the foods their children select. If your child selects a' la carte items instead of the complete meal, she may not be selecting a variety of foods that provide a balanced meal. She may not even select enough food for lunch if she's grabbing an item or two quickly so that she can have time to socialize with friends.

Talking to Your Child About Making Smart Choices

You are more likely to help your child make wise choices if you highlight the benefits of eating healthfully. Puberty contributes to increased appetites; however, if your child is not physically active poor food choices can lead to unwanted weight gain. New regulations for school canteens and cafeterias eliminate many of the junk foods previously found in schools; however, you may still share your nutrition expectations and goals with your child.