Unlock Your Child’s Health Potential: The Power of Dairy in School Meals

School Meals© bonniej / Getty Images Signature / Canva

As parents, we all want the best for our children, which includes providing them with nutritious meals every day. Fortunately, school lunch programs are designed to do just that—ensure that children get enough of the essential nutrients their growing bodies need. One food product often overlooked in these programs is dairy. Dairy provides essential vitamins and minerals that are key for healthy development.

A 2021 peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers at Tufts University and Icahn School of Medicine reveals that school meals are the most nutritious among food sources such as grocery stores, restaurants, and others. It is especially beneficial for children who face food insecurity, whose only guaranteed meal of the day may be the one eaten at school. The research indicates that children participating in school meals consume more dairy milk, fruits and vegetables than their peers who do not partake in the program. On the other hand, those who don’t participate consume more desserts and snacks, suggesting schools provide much-needed balanced nutrition for students. Taken together, these findings suggest that investing in comprehensive programs to improve nutritional standards in school food can offer huge benefits to children’s health.

Let’s take a closer look at how dairy is critical to children’s health and why it should be included in school meals.

• School meals are a key source of dairy for many children, providing up to 2 of the 3 recommended daily servings.

School meals have become a critical source of dairy for many school-age children. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, school meals are the single largest source of dairy in kids’ diets, as they often provide up to 2 of the 3 recommended daily servings. In particular, this is of great importance for children from low-income backgrounds, as a 2017 study published in Preventative Medicine Reports found that school meals actually account for 77% of these students’ daily dairy milk consumption and 70% of their total dairy consumption. This underscores how integral it is that schools offer milk and other dairy sources like cheese and yogurt, in order to ensure every child has access to essential nutrients from milk and dairy foods.

• A variety of milk options are offered in schools, including fat-free, low-fat, flavored and lactose-free. All offer 13 essential nutrients.

Providing a variety of milk options in school meals is paramount to ensure our children are receiving the nutrients they need. As dairy products such as fat-free, low-fat, flavored and lactose-free each offer 13 essential nutrients, it is important for schools to provide these options for their students. Doing so can create a healthy eating environment where no child has to go without the proper nutrition needed for their growth and development. By doing so, we can be sure our students start off on the right track toward leading healthier lives.

• Flavor milk served in schools has decreased added sugars by nearly 50% while still providing important nutrition.

Milk has always been a key part of any school meal. However, due to the high sugar content of flavored varieties, it can often be unhealthy. Fortunately, schools all over the country have made huge strides in reducing the amount of added sugars found in milk without compromising on flavor. In fact, progress has been so great that there’s been nearly a 50% decrease in added sugars. Students still get the traditional taste they’re looking for, yet their diets are now also benefiting from fewer added sugars overall. As part of a well-prepared school meal plan, this shift towards nutritious ingredients with excellent flavor could help encourage kids to make healthier eating choices in the long run. In terms of overall sugar intake among children aged 2-18, NHANES data indicates that sweetened milk makes up only 4%, while most sugar comes from other sources such as sugary drinks and desserts.

• Flavored milk increases nutrient consumption compared to non-consumers, giving an additional 51% more vitamin D, 27% more calcium and 16% more potassium.

Research published in Nutrition Today has determined that flavored milk consumption for children in schools helps meet their nutritional needs. A recent 2022 study from ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health journal showed that flavored milk consumers drink 1-cup more of total milk and receive an enriched intake of essential minerals and vitamins, including 51% more Vitamin D, 27% more calcium, and 16% more potassium than non-consumers. This nutrition-rich liquid helps children reach their nutrient requirements and maintain a healthy lifestyle.

• Dairy foods provided in school meals are critical to helping ensure kids receive the nutrients they need to grow and learn healthy habits.

School meals are a vital source of nutrition for children — and dairy foods, including milk, cheese, yogurt, and other products made from dairy, should be an integral part of these meals. Dairy products form an important component of any healthy eating pattern as they contain calcium, vitamin D, and other essential vitamins and minerals. These nutrients help propel optimal growth and development in kids; in addition to contributing to strong bones and muscles, they can also promote better physical performance in activities like sports. Moreover, research suggests that establishing a habit of consuming dairy foods at a young age can help foster better nutrition-related habits later in life. For these reasons, providing dairy foods as part of school meals is critical to helping children receive the nourishment they need to reach their full potential.

A Dairy-rich Diet Is Essential for Children’s Health

It’s clear that having dairy products available in school meals is important for children’s health and development. Dairy provides essential nutrients like calcium and vitamin D to help build strong bones and teeth; potassium for healthy blood pressure; protein for growing muscles; as well as other essential vitamins and minerals such as vitamin A, riboflavin and phosphorus. Furthermore, having a variety of milk options offered in schools allows kids to get the nutrition they need without compromising taste or adding extra sugar to their diets. Ensuring kids receive these necessary nutrients through school meals will help them reach their full potential now—and later on in life!

Nutrition, exercise, and mental health are essential components of a healthy lifestyle. MyChesCo offers helpful articles that provide actionable tips to help you to start living healthier today. Whether you want to improve your diet, increase your physical activity, or prioritize your mental health, you can find plenty of useful information within MyChesCo’s Healthy Living section. Plus, there is so much more that MyChesCo does for the Chester County community—be sure to check out all the news and information the site has for you! And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter and follow us on social media, because there’s always a new tip about living a healthier life just around the corner.

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This article is intended for informational, entertainment or educational purposes only and should not be construed as advice, guidance or counsel. It is provided without warranty of any kind.