Meal Patterns: Information & Resources

Last summer we brought you information about meal patterns from the Annual National Conference in Nashville. At the conference we held sessions for school nutrition professionals, where the discussion centered around the USDA-proposed meal pattern changes that are on the horizon for school meals. We wanted to follow up with some additional information for our readers, readers who may not be school food pros but who are looking to learn more about what meal patterns are, what they mean, and how they will affect meals served in elementary and secondary schools across the country.

What are meal patterns?

What do we mean when we use the phrase “meal pattern”? A meal pattern is a set of food components, food items, and minimum quantities required for a breakfast, supplement (snack), or lunch or supper for a specific age group of children.[1]

In schools, meal patterns are used to create menus with the healthiest meals for students. Further, the meal patterns determine whether a meal is reimbursable; in order for a school to receive reimbursement for a meal served, it must contain components dictated by the most current meal pattern standards.

What do the upcoming proposed meal pattern changes mean?

Earlier this year the USDA released a proposed rule that would update the nutrition standards for meals served through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and the School Breakfast Program (SBP). The new meal pattern requirements include limiting calories and sodium, and requiring schools to offer more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.

  • Calorie levels for school lunch: Must not exceed 650 calories for students in grades K-5; 700 calories for grades 6-8; 850 calories for grades 9-12.
  • Calorie levels for school breakfast: Must not exceed 500 calories for grades K-5; 550 calories for grades 6-8; 600 calories for grades 9-12.
  • Sodium levels will be lowered over a period of 10 years for both breakfast and lunch.
  • Fruit serving increases: At breakfast, 1 cup per day for all grades. At lunch, 1 cup per day for grades 9-12. No more than half of the fruit provided by schools in juice form.
  • Vegetable serving increases: Grades K-8 should offer three-quarter cups per day, grades 9-12 should offer 1 cup per day. Schools should offer starchy vegetables (i.e. potatoes) less frequently, and provide at least one-half cup daily in the form of leafy greens, orange vegetables and legumes per week.
  • Whole grains: More than half of the grains and breads offered to students should be whole grain rich (>50%).
  • Dairy: Students should receive one cup of 1% (one percent) white milk or nonfat white or flavored milk at breakfast and lunch each day.
  • Meat/meat alternative: For breakfast, for grades K-8, students should receive one ounce per day; for grades 9-12, two ounces on most days. For lunch, students should be offered two ounces on most days for all grades, with more flexibility for higher grades.

Online resources for meal planning, meal patterns, and school food programs

There are many online resources where you can learn more about programs like the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast program, as well as meal patterns and menu planning. Do you have one you love? Leave us the link in the comments section!

[1] Child & Adult Care Food Program, USDA Food & Nutrition Service

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