10 Ways to Improve School Lunches

For many schools and school cafeterias, ongoing discussions center on how to improve school lunches. With so much information about and sources of healthy alternatives to standard school lunches, now is a great time to make changes that will improve students’ health, benefit local food producers and potentially offer cost savings.  

So how can we improve school lunches? Here are 10 practical ideas on improving school lunches to help K-12 schools make healthier meal options available for their students. By following these steps, your schools can create sustainable lunch programs that provide nutritious and appealing meals while also being mindful of cost efficiency. 

Table of Contents:



1. Enroll in Farm-to-School Programs 

The National Farm to School Network offers invaluable resources to help K-12 school cafeterias. It helps to incorporate and promote local foods, with the support of the USDA Farm to School Program. These resources, along with grants for educational activities, are fantastic ways that schools can improve their lunch programs. 

Research has found that having a farm-to-school program can foster healthy eating habits. It makes students more likely to try nutritious fruits and vegetables. If you're looking for ways to improve school lunches, look no further than the National Farm to School Network!


2. Increase Gardens in School 

Across the U.S., school gardens are becoming a popular way to teach students how to improve school lunches and snacks. For example, in a school in Vermont, indoor tower gardens provide an opportunity for students to learn how fresh ingredients can be grown and used in healthy recipes. 

In New York City, raised beds give students access to a variety of fresh produce. And in tribal communities, native food gardens provide students with a unique chance to learn how to incorporate traditional ingredients into their meals. 

The 2015, USDA Farm to School Census indicated that there were more than 7,000 school gardens across the country. In addition, Alice Waters' Edible Schoolyard Project at a middle school in California includes an acre garden and a kitchen classroom. 

To ensure that students understand how to use the fresh ingredients they grow, nutrition education should be part of the curriculum. This can be done through field trips to the garden, special lessons about healthy eating habits and other interactive activities that help students develop a better understanding of how to make nutritious meals. 

By teaching nutrition education through school gardens and various curricula, schools can create a healthier food environment and help students learn how to improve their own school lunches. By implementing these ideas, schools can create healthier lunches and snacks that students will enjoy and benefit from.


3. Add More Salad Bars to Schools 

The Let’s Move Salad Bars to Schools program, which was initiated in 2010, is a collaborative effort between renowned chef Ann Cooper, produce associations and grocers. The mission of this alliance is to have salad bars available in all K-12 schools across the United States. 

By providing a wide variety of fresh produce options, salad bars give students the freedom to choose how they want their meals to be composed, while also encouraging them to try and consume more fruits and vegetables. Evidence shows that having salad bars in school cafeterias increases children’s intake of nutrient-rich foods. 

In short, implementing salad bars in schools is an effective way to improve school lunches. 

In addition to salad bars, there are other ways to improve school lunches. Schools should consider serving whole-grain foods such as brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and 100% whole-grain bread and tortillas. These foods contain more fiber and essential nutrients.


4. Source Health-Focused and Sustainable Foods 

Making the switch to higher-quality, more nutritious, and locally sourced food can help schools create healthy school lunches students enjoy — all while working within a budget. Preparing more meals on-site can also be a great way to improve the quality of school lunches. With the right approach, schools can make positive changes to what their students eat. 

In 2016, the Oakland Unified School District in California made a groundbreaking decision to partner with the Center for Good Food Purchasing. This decision saw the school sourcing food from local farms and companies that provided nutritious, minimally processed ingredients. 

Additionally, these sources were expected to follow fair labor practices and pay employees a living wage. 

In just two years, the school district managed to reduce its animal product intake by 30%. The meat that was still served was sourced from carefully chosen pasture-raised sources.


5. Eliminate Processed Food and Unhealthy Ingredients 

If you're asking how we can improve school lunches, one way is to remove certain types of products. Processed food and unhealthy ingredients contain a lot of added sugars, fats, sodium and other additives. 

This can hurt children’s health in the long run. So, if schools eliminate those types of food from their lunch programs, then they will be providing healthier options for students. 

Because many processed foods lack important nutrients, eliminating them from lunch menus can help ensure that students are getting the vitamins and minerals they need to stay healthy. This would likely lead to an overall improvement in students’ learning performance as well as their physical health. 

By including whole foods and fresh ingredients instead of processed ones, schools will be helping set healthier habits for their students as they grow. This in turn could lead to long-term benefits for both the students and the school. Therefore, eliminating processed food and unhealthy ingredients is an important part of how to improve school lunches. 

The Berkeley Unified School District in California has taken steps to make school lunches healthier by eliminating processed foods. This includes hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, high-fructose corn syrup, refined sugars and refined flour, as well as chemicals, dye additives and nitrates. 

In addition, school cafeterias are serving local organic milk and local and/or organic fruits and vegetables as much as possible. These changes are helping to create healthier meal options for students. This has led to an overall improvement in student health and learning.

6. Switch Up Ingredients 

Many schools include chicken nuggets, hot dogs and corn dogs in their lunch menus. However, these foods contain unhealthy ingredients such as processed meats and high fat content. Schools should consider switching up the ingredients to make them healthier. Here are some ways of improving school lunches: 

  • For chicken nuggets: Consider using lean cuts of real chicken breast that are grilled or baked. This will reduce the amount of fat in the nuggets and provide a healthier option for students. 
  • For hot dogs: Consider using lean cuts of turkey, chicken or beef that are low in sodium and free from nitrates. These can be served steamed, boiled or grilled to reduce fat content. 
  • For corn dogs: Consider using lean cuts of turkey, chicken or beef that are low in sodium and free from nitrates. These can be served steamed, boiled or grilled with a cornmeal batter to reduce fat content. 

By offering healthier options such as these, schools can ensure they are providing students with nutritious meals that promote their health and well-being. This is an important part of how to improve school lunches.


7. Include a Wide Variety of Vegetarian Options 

Schools need to include vegetarian, vegan and other dietary options in their menus to help ensure students are getting enough nutrients even if they don't eat meat or particular food groups. 

Some great vegetarian options include bean burritos, lentil soup, black bean burgers and veggie wraps. These types of dishes provide a good source of protein, fiber and vitamins that students need to stay healthy. 

In addition, schools should also consider offering vegan options such as salads made with quinoa or tofu, hummus and veggie wraps. These dishes provide a variety of nutrients that are important for students’ health and well-being. 

By incorporating vegetarian and vegan options into their lunch menus, schools can ensure they are providing a more diverse range of students with dietary needs and the nutrition they need to stay healthy and perform well in school. 

After a successful pilot program of providing plant-based school lunches at seven Los Angeles schools, the Los Angeles Unified School District could become the first in the nation to offer a vegan lunch selection at every school. 

Lila Copeland, a student and youth director for Earth Peace, is pushing her proposal forward to provide California students with a daily vegan entrée and nondairy beverage option by the time she graduates high school in 2020. 

New York City public schools also have plant-powered lunch options available at 1,200 locations and even three all-vegetarian elementary schools. These alternative menus provide diverse meals such as lentil sloppy joes, braised black beans with plantains and teriyaki crunchy tofu. 

If you are looking for ways to improve school lunches, these initiatives show how plant-based meals can be incorporated into the everyday school menu. Incorporating more vegetarian options into school lunch programs is an effective way for K-12 schools to provide healthier food choices for their students. With these changes, we can help create a healthier and more sustainable future for our children. 

8. Easy Ways To Incorporate Vegetarian Options

You might be struggling to come up with ideas on how to make vegetarian meals delicious and appealing. Here are some ideas for how to improve school lunches by creating healthy options. 


Bowls are a great way to offer a variety of nutritious foods at once. Try adding quinoa with black beans and veggies, zoodles with veggies or lentil salads to your school lunch menu. 

Buddha bowls are also a great option, combining grains or starches with colorful vegetables, legumes/beans or tofu, and sometimes fruit all in one dish. For some plant-powered ideas, check out Forkly's Buddha bowl recipes. 

Burritos and Wraps 

Burritos and wraps are a great way to offer students more healthy options for school lunches. Try incorporating some of these delicious recipes into your lunch program: bean burritos, tahini and red pepper rolls, plant-based chickpea “tuna” salad, collard wraps, veggie sushi rolls and plant-powered pita pizzas. Not only are these recipes nutritious, but they make for an exciting lunch that your students will love! 


Sandwiches are a great way to get creative in the lunchroom! Try preparing cucumber and hummus, apple and nut butter, avocado and veggies or veggie burgers for something different. Hummus is a classic sandwich spread, but why not mix it up by making white bean hummus or adding other ingredients like peas and mint? 

Pasta Salad 

Try giving your students a healthier version of pasta. Simply make whole-grain or bean-based pasta, then add beans and veggies along with your favorite sauce for an easy, delicious meal. It's an easy way to provide healthy options to your school lunch program. 

Salad in a Jar 

Meals in a jar are perfect for those who want to make healthier lunch choices. If you're looking for easy, portable and tasty options, there are plenty of creative ideas to try. Recipes like crunchy Asian salad, Mexican black bean salad, fruity kale salad and Greek chickpea salad all work well. 

Healthy Sides and Snacks 

Sides and snacks are essential for a balanced school lunch. To make them more nutritious, try adding some fresh fruit and seeds, roasted chickpeas, kale chips, celery logs with nut butter and raisins, energy balls, homemade granola bars, chia seed puddings and veggies with hummus.


9. Try Meatless Mondays

To encourage students to eat a wider variety of foods and to try different meals, one initiative to try is Meatless Mondays. 

More than 50 school districts across the United States have implemented Meatless Mondays. This program aims to promote healthy eating habits and reduce meat consumption, which is beneficial for both our health and the environment. 

In New York City, 15 public schools in Brooklyn are participating in a pilot program to launch Meatless Mondays. If successful, the city’s entire public school district could soon follow suit. 

This initiative is just one way schools can improve their lunch programs to provide healthier and more sustainable options. With the right knowledge and resources, there are plenty of ways to promote healthy eating habits among students. 


10. Ban Processed Meats 

Eating processed meat can lead to several health problems. Overconsumption can cause issues such as: 

  • Higher risk of cancer Higher risk of cardiovascular diseases
  • Increased cholesterol levels
  • Weight gain and obesity
  • Poor nutrition
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Gastrointestinal diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome and colon cancer 

By reducing the use of processed meats in school lunches, you can improve students’ health. Processed meats are high in saturated fat and salt, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, cancer and other health problems listed above. 

Offer higher-quality meats and increased plant-based options. Encourage students to adopt a flexitarian diet, which has been proven to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke and some cancers. Schools can help by providing healthier meals that are lower in saturated fats and higher in protein. Meat substitutes can be made from plant-based proteins such as tofu, beans, nuts and seeds. 

Other Things That Can Encourage Healthy Eating 

Along with schools making investments in improving the quality of school meals, other factors can help. Parents also have a role to play. 

Although healthy snacks are available at schools, encourage parents to pack healthy snacks for their children when sending them to school. This can help reduce how much processed food students may otherwise eat during lunchtime. Additionally, it’s a great way for parents to teach their kids how to make healthy eating choices and how to properly portion meals. 

Also, parents should supply their children with reusable water bottles that they can refill at designated water stations throughout the school campus. This will help reduce how much plastic waste is generated by schools, while also helping students stay hydrated. Plus, it's more affordable. 

Healthy School Lunches Around the World  

Many countries are striving to provide quality meals for students at an affordable cost. Here are some encouraging developments regarding school lunches. 


In France, by law, at least 50% of school lunches must include vegetables. Additionally, in 2017, the European Union announced plans to invest in a new program that would help cover the costs of school lunches and subsidize the inclusion of fruits and vegetables. This is a great step toward creating healthier school lunch options for students around the world. 


In the U.K., a public campaign is striving to improve plant-based food options in schools. The mission of this movement is to make several important changes: having meat-free meals available every day, offering different types of meat-free meals that are separate from meat-based dishes, and mandating one completely vegetarian day per week. 


In Japan, school meals are a source of national pride and serve as an example of how to improve school lunches. Food for school lunches is sourced locally whenever possible and is almost always fresh rather than frozen. This approach is something that all schools could learn from to provide healthier meals for their students. 


Nutritionists in Brazil are taking steps to ensure that students have access to healthier lunches. They create lunch menus with a 30% minimum quota for organic agricultural products sourced from local farmers, and food handlers prepare meals fresh and from scratch. This is how they are improving school lunches nationwide. 

Benefits of Making Packed Lunches for Your Kids 

Parents may choose to provide their children with packed lunches for school. There are several benefits to this provided that parents are supplying healthy food. Here are some guidelines for parents looking to provide healthy lunches from home. 

  • You have control over what goes into the food you provide to your children.
  • It's beneficial if your child is a fussy eater.
  • You can create balanced and healthy meals for your child.
  • Kids can take responsibility for what they eat by helping to make it.
  • There is more time available at lunch allowing kids to socialize with their peers.
  • It can help reduce food waste by using leftovers from previous meals.
  • It's more affordable. 

Use Healthy “Convenience” Foods 

Instead of processed or fast foods, how about easy-to-pack real food options? This could include cherry tomatoes, olives, frozen peas/lima beans/corn, organic berries, clementines, grapes, string cheese, hard-boiled eggs, organic jerky sticks and drinkable yogurt. 

For snacks, try some olive oil popcorn, seed crackers or sprouted nuts and seeds. These are healthier options that kids can take with them on the go! Enjoy! 

Keep “Emergency” Meals in the Freezer 

For those days when you're running late and need to prepare a school lunch quickly, consider freezing some meals ahead of time. This way, your child can grab lunch and be off to school in no time. 

Ideas for lunches that freeze well include bean burritos, almond and honey sandwiches, turkey roll-ups, and more. Add a piece of fruit and a drink to round out the meal. Your child will have a balanced, healthy lunch in no time! 


Healthy School Meals Checklist 

We've covered a lot of content in this article. To summarize some of the things we've discussed about how to improve school lunches, here's a useful checklist:

  1. Offer more vegetarian or vegan options.
  2. Provide fresh fruit and vegetable options on the menu.
  3. Reduce unhealthy options like deep-fried items and sugary desserts.
  4. Use locally sourced ingredients.
  5. Incorporate plant-based proteins such as beans, lentils and nuts.
  6. Increase whole-grain offerings.
  7. Offer smaller portion sizes to prevent overeating.
  8. Reduce the amount of processed food served.
  9. Introduce a variety of ethnic cuisines to sample.
  10. Provide nutritional information for meals. 

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