Diet Experts Issue New Guidelines for School Lunches

Unchanged since 1995, the standards for school lunches have perhaps grown stale enough to lend themselves to jokes about cafeteria food.

But researchers hope to change all that with a new set of guidelines to promote healthier eating habits in American children and stem the rising levels of obesity. Today, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) -- part of the National Academy of Sciences -- released new guidelines in an attempt to change what schools serve for breakfast and lunch.

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"What you really will see is the change in nutrient needs," said Mary Jo Tuckwell, a consultant for the food services group inTeam Associates in Ashland, Wis., and a member of the committee that wrote the guidelines. "Instead of targeting nutrients, we're really focusing on foods."

Several guidelines, as doctors have recommended for years, suggest adding more fruits, vegetables and whole grains to the menu.

But perhaps one of the biggest changes -- and one that is supported by both child nutritionists and a celebrity chef -- is an emphasis on adding new equipment and infrastructure to school kitchens to speed the changes along.

British TV chef Jamie Oliver told ABC News through a representative that the largest change schools could make to improve menus was to "teach nutrition services staff how to cook freshly prepared meals." Oliver said this would require training, better ways of storing fresh food, and in many cases adding equipment and facilities.

In early 2010, Oliver will begin starring in "Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution," a show on ABC where he will remake the school lunch menu in Huntington, W. Va. The British chef had previously embarked on a project in the United Kingdom where he remade the meals at a school there to make them healthier.

Oliver had already pushed for people to learn to cook more nutritious meals at home. Taking the issue to the schools, he said, would make a big difference.

"Children are getting diabetes, heart disease, all sorts of diseases that only used to show up in adults, because of the food they are eating," said Oliver. "We can influence this in a massive way by improving at least one daily meal, school lunch."

Researchers backed that assertion.

"One of the ways in which we can stem the tide of obesity is to change what is happening in schools," said Dr. Lori Feldman-Winter, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine at Cooper University Hospital. "Once that becomes the norm, we can actually change the eating habits of kids and teens."

She said that just 10 servings of a nutritious food can lead children to change their diets.

"If you offer healthy options enough, then that becomes the preferred option and kids do incorporate healthy eating into their habits," said Winter. "That is also what they're going to choose as they get older, and they will not select items that will land them in fast food environments, for example.

"I think there is an opportunity in children to change their palate. School has taken on a role that goes beyond just education."

Authors of the guidelines said lifelong habits were among their goals.

"Studies have shown students may take multiple times to be exposed to something, but with those [exposures] they can…be more receptive to greater variety in the diet," said Helen Jensen, a professor of economics at Iowa State University and one of the members of the committee that wrote the new guidelines.

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