Kids choose at one of country's largest restaurants: the school cafeteria

Math, science, English and history – every day, children learn these important lessons in school. But every day at lunch, they walk into their school cafeterias to learn another important lesson: how to make independent nutrition choices. It's like going to a restaurant without the grown-ups, and with K-12 schools serving up to 31 million students every day, it's one of the largest restaurants in the country.

This guided independence in the lunch line provides an important sense of empowerment for students as well as a chance to develop healthy eating habits for home.

"The many different foods we provide in our lunchrooms allow students an opportunity to put together a meal that they choose – and because of our work to develop menus, whatever combination of foods they select will provide them the nutrition they need," says Paula Pohlkamp, nutrition services supervisor from the North St. Paul school district, Minnesota. "We're helping them build good decision-making skills while giving them the energy they need for the rest of their busy days. It's a win-win situation."

School nutrition teams in schools across the country have worked diligently to meet the 2014 requirements for the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act, with weekly menus reflecting significantly reduced sodium levels, increased amounts of whole grains and fruits and vegetables, and needed proteins and nutrients. The regulations are rigorous and require careful planning. Sodium levels for elementary school lunches have no more than 1,230 mg of sodium while high school meals have 1,420 mg or less.

"Our menus are created months in advance by a menu committee," explains Pohlkamp. The committee samples new products, attends food shows, conducts taste tests with the students and then works to assure total nutritional content for each day's menus. Pohlkamp's district has also utilized marketing classes to conduct focus groups with all grade levels to obtain valuable feedback. The process closely tracks the type of research that goes into menu development for restaurants.

To meet the ever-evolving and sophisticated palates of even their youngest customers, schools want to offer a broad range of flavor profiles – some reflecting regional preferences and many reflecting restaurant trends – all with reduced sodium and increased whole grains.

For example, the new 4.5-by-8-inch Big Daddy's(R) Pesto Chicken and Thai-Style Chicken Artisan Flatbreads for school from Schwan's Food Service, Inc. are thin, crispy flatbreads that look and taste like restaurant fare. The Pesto Chicken flatbread is topped with a pesto sauce, chicken and a blend of Italian-style cheeses. The Thai-Style Chicken is topped with a flavorful Thai sauce, mozzarella, chicken, carrots, soy nuts, scallions and cilantro. Each flatbread has a whole grain rich crust, 22 grams of protein, 30 percent of the recommended daily amount of calcium, only 340 calories and less than 470 mg of sodium.

Other favorite lunchroom items reflect the trend of customizable offerings, such as salad bars, fresh subs and build-your-own burritos. But in all cases, students enjoy finding favorite, familiar and on-trend foods in the lunch line.

"Lunch is a pretty pivotal meal for kids," says Susan Moores, a registered dietitian who works with schools in the Twin Cities. "It sets the table for energy levels throughout the afternoon and it influences how they'll learn and perform during the balance of the day."

Lunchrooms that offer a variety of healthful, delicious foods make it easy for kids to stretch their independence and worry-free for parents to let them do just that. School cafeterias have a great opportunity to be not only a restaurant, but also a classroom of sorts, adds Moores. "Any time we can help kids learn how to make healthful food choices, it's a good thing," she says.