Jan 29, 2015
What’s for Lunch?

School lunches aren’t usually a hot topic of conversation among strength coaches and athletic trainers, but the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act has changed that.

By Kim Tirapelle

Kim Tirapelle, MS, RD, CSSD, is a Registered Dietitian for TERRIO Physical Therapy & Fitness in Fresno, Calif., where she provides individualized sports nutrition counseling to recreational, high school, collegiate, and professional athletes. She is also the Sports Dietitian at Fresno State University and can be reached at: [email protected].

Since the implementation this fall of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, an increasing number of high school athletes–as well as their coaches and parents–have been calling foul. Many athletes argue that the new nutritional standards, which limit high school lunches to 850 total calories, do not provide enough energy to sustain them throughout the school day, let alone meet their elevated needs for practice or competition.

However, the United States is facing an unprecedented level of childhood obesity. According to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey of 2007-2008, 17 percent of children between ages two and 19 are obese. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act was created to help combat this epidemic, not to under-fuel student-athletes.

We need to address the childhood obesity epidemic through appropriately portioned school lunches, yet provide ample nutrition to our student-athletes who require more energy to meet their performance goals. For our athletes, this requires a detailed evaluation of their eating habits and a commitment to become better planners when it comes to their nutrition.


The new regulations focus on increasing fruit, vegetable, low-fat dairy, and whole grain consumption, while limiting saturated fats, trans fats, and sodium. Here is a summary of the new guidelines and some recent adjustments:

– The five components of a school meal are meat/meat alternative, grains, fruits, vegetables, and milk.

– School lunches now have calorie restrictions. Elementary school lunches contain 550 to 650 calories, middle school lunches contain 600 to 700 calories, and high school lunches run between 750 and 850 calories. These parameters were established based upon the government’s daily calorie goals for each age group and aim to provide at least one-third of a student’s daily calorie needs.

– Schools are required to serve both fruits and vegetables every day.

– Students must have one fruit or vegetable on their tray and can ask for seconds of fruits and vegetables.

– By 2014, all grains offered must be whole grain.

– By 2014, the maximum amount of sodium allowed in a high school lunch will be 740 milligrams.

– Flavored milks must be fat free and plain milk must be low fat.

Although many student-athletes have complained about the reduced portion sizes and overall calories, I think the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act can be a positive for them as it provides increased access to fresh, nutrient-rich foods. Before the new regulations, many athletes over-consumed foods that were high in fat and processed carbohydrates and lacked nutrients, which left them feeling artificially full. The quantity of calories may have been higher, but the quality of those calories was lacking.

In addition, the higher fat content of a large lunch can contribute to gastrointestinal upset and feeling fatigued or weak in afternoon workouts or competition. Heavier lunches can have a negative impact on an athlete’s performance without them even realizing it, while lighter lunches paired with a pre-workout snack have the potential to improve performance.

I advocate using the new regulations as an opportunity for high school athletes to learn how to fuel themselves as active individuals. Even for an athlete with a daily energy requirement of 4,000 to 5,000 calories, an 850-calorie lunch would be adequate as long as they follow a consistent fueling pattern throughout the rest of the day.

As a sports dietitian who works with athletes of all ages, I help elite high school athletes develop individualized performance nutrition programs. Our plans always incorporate at least three full meals paired with two to three snacks, pre- and post-workout foods, and hydration. This fueling strategy optimizes muscle glycogen stores and hydration status and provides adequate carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals throughout the day to meet growth and recovery needs.


Developing a sound sports nutrition plan that meets the needs of a growing high school athlete starts before the first bell rings. Because many athletes stay up late studying after a long day of school and practice, getting in a few more minutes of shuteye can be a high priority, but eating a nutrient-rich breakfast is equally important.

For athletes, starting the day with a whole grain carbohydrate source and lean protein source is crucial for kick-starting metabolism and beginning to meet energy needs for the day. Whole grain carbohydrates provide fiber, which help increase satiety, and include higher levels of vitamins and minerals such as iron and thiamine.

Including a protein source will result in a more even blood sugar response and provide consistent fuel to an athlete’s muscles and brain throughout the day. Protein sources are also rich in performance-enhancing vitamins and minerals such as iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, zinc, calcium, and vitamin D. Here are some ideas for grab-and-go breakfasts that include whole grain carbohydrate and lean protein sources:

– Greek yogurt topped with low-fat granola or dry cereal, paired with eight ounces of orange juice

– Two to three whole grain frozen waffles topped with peanut butter and a banana, paired with eight ounces of low-fat milk

– Two hardboiled eggs and two slices of whole wheat toast with jelly, paired with eight ounces of low-fat milk

– A bowl of oatmeal or cereal topped with low-fat milk and berries

– One scrambled egg with black beans and shredded cheese wrapped in a whole wheat tortilla, paired with fresh fruit and eight ounces of low-fat milk

– A whole grain bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter, paired with fresh berries and eight ounces of low-fat chocolate milk

– A smoothie combining fruit, low-fat Greek yogurt, and fruit juice with two slices of whole wheat toast topped with peanut butter.


By the time an athlete gets to first period, lunch is anywhere from three to six hours away. Unfortunately, due to lack of planning, many student-athletes rely too heavily on their school lunches to provide the majority of their energy intake during school hours. Instead, all high school athletes–regardless of sport, gender, size, or calorie needs–should be fueling and hydrating every two to four hours throughout the school day to provide consistent nutrient blasts to muscle tissue. To do so, mid-morning and mid-afternoon and/or pre-practice snacks are a must.

Student-athletes have time to grab books from their lockers between classes, so they should be able to grab a snack from their backpack at the same time. Or, if need be, they can work with teachers to find appropriate class times to eat a quick snack that will help them meet their elevated energy needs.

Mid-morning snacks should combine carbohydrates with protein or healthy fat sources. This helps to keep energy intake consistent between meals and will also prevent an athlete from feeling excessively hungry by lunchtime. Snacks that meet these requirements and can be packed in a backpack include granola bars with protein, fresh fruit, trail mix with nuts and dried fruit, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and shelf stable meal replacement shakes.

The mid-afternoon and/or pre-workout snack should be high in carbohydrates, moderate in protein, and low in fat and fiber. These guidelines ensure that the energy the athlete consumes pre-workout will be available to their muscles quickly. Carbohydrates help top off muscle glycogen stores. Protein sources provide amino acids to the muscles that will be available in time for recovery after exercise. And high fiber foods such as raw vegetables, high fiber whole grain muffins, cereals, and breads, and high fat food sources like oils, sauces, cheeses, and high fat meats should be limited as they delay gastric emptying and therefore slow the availability of energy to the muscles, causing gastrointestinal upset.

The following mid-afternoon and/or pre-workout snacks should be paired with liquids such as water, low-fat plain milk or flavored milk, 100-percent fruit juice, or a sports drink for hydration purposes. Quick and easy ideas include:

– Two granola bars or cereal bars – Low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit – Trail mix or low-fat granola with dried fruit – A low-fat pudding cup with wafer cookies or graham crackers – Two oatmeal cookies – A bagel with low-fat cream cheese.


High school athletes should supplement their 850-calorie lunch based on calorie levels required. The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act allows students to request seconds of low-fat milk, fruit, and vegetables. Most high schools also have additional a la carte items for purchase.

In the Clovis (Calif.) Unified School District, for example, 7th through 12th graders can purchase a la carte items like a chicken sandwich, bean and cheese burrito, chicken wrap, chicken or steak tornados, baked chips, low-fat ice cream sandwiches, and low-fat chocolate chip cookies. These entree items can add up to 400 calories each to an athlete’s lunch and the snacks up to 250 calories each.

Many schools also have student stores that sell food. Student-athletes should look for options that provide complex carbohydrates with protein and healthy fat sources. Some good choices include beef jerky, cereal bars, Chex mix, corn nuts, granola bars, peanuts, popcorn, pretzels, and trail mix. If the school has a vending machine, baked chips, dried fruit, fruit snacks, graham crackers, animal crackers, dry cereal, cheese and crackers, peanut butter and crackers, nuts, and seeds are also healthy choices.


Providing snacks throughout the day is the responsibility of the student-athlete, and some athletes’ families may not be able to afford them. But there are some financially friendly avenues that athletes can explore.

For example, the booster club may be an option. A team or the team’s coach can ask its booster club to purchase pre-practice snacks or recovery snacks for the team. Fresh fruit or fruit cups, granola bars, bagels, nuts, yogurt cups, pudding cups, pretzels, sports drinks, and low-fat chocolate milk can all be purchased in bulk by a booster club.

If the team has some parents who like to be involved in projects, they might be willing to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or small deli meat sandwiches once a week. Putting them in the athletic training room and/or locker room would encourage athletes to grab a bite on the way to practice. Local restaurants, food service companies, and farmers markets might be willing to partner with your school or team and exchange pre-practice or pregame food donations for free publicity. This could include signage at athletic events, an ad in a game program, or mention of them as a team sponsor during media broadcasts.

Finally, some sports drink or protein drink manufacturers may be able to donate their products to nonprofit entities such as school teams. Explore and take advantage of all of these options.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act doesn’t have to be a challenge for athletes. In fact, the fresh and healthy foods that it provides are a positive. Supplementing with proper fuel before and after lunch can make or break an athlete’s nutrition, but it’s up to them to do a little planning and take the right route.


To give you an idea of what athletes’ lunches (and possible supplementation) should look like, here are a couple of hypothetical scenarios. The lunches detailed below are from the Clovis (Calif.) Unified High School lunch menu.

Matt is a junior lineman weighing 200 pounds. His season just finished and off-season training has begun. He is hoping to continue playing in college and wants to attract the attention of scouts, so he would like to put on some weight and increase his size before his senior year.

A typical school lunch at Clovis might include:

– Orange chicken and rice bowl (445 calories) – A banana (90 calories) – Baby carrots (20 calories) – Eight ounces of 1% milk (130 calories).

Based on his weight training program and goal to increase muscle mass, Matt should be consuming approximately 4,500 calories per day. In order to round out his lunch, I would suggest he supplement it with two granola bars (200 calories) and one ounce of nuts such as almonds (160 calories), bringing his total lunch calories to 1,045.

Kylie is a 110-pound female cross country runner who follows a lacto-ovo vegetarian diet (she consumes dairy and egg products, but no meat or fish). The cross country season is nearing its end and she is looking to maintain performance as regionals loom ahead.

A typical school lunch at Clovis might include:

– Chili (meat or vegetarian) with a two-ounce dinner roll (313 calories) – A cup of steamed green beans (80 calories) – A cup of steamed corn (134 calories) – Eight ounces of apple juice (120 calories) – Two fruit cups (80 calories).

Kylie should be consuming about 2,400 calories per day. Because she follows a vegetarian-based diet, her protein needs are 10 percent higher than non-vegetarian athletes, and her iron needs are almost two times as high. She must also eat a variety of food sources to meet her nutrient needs for vitamin B12, calcium, vitamin D, riboflavin, and zinc. Therefore, she could have the school lunch and add some additional items from home like six ounces of reduced-fat Greek yogurt (170 calories) with one ounce of walnuts (185 calories) to increase her protein, healthy fat, calcium, vitamin D, and iron intake.

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