Can a Child Become Overweight Just From Eating School Lunch? — A TLT Experiment

Sitting in our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting yesterday, a question popped into my mind.  With all the laudable improvements Houston ISD has recently made to its menu, could a child still become overweight just from eating school lunch?  In other words, would a child making seemingly bad choices on the lunch line be somehow “protected from himself” by the menu improvements (e.g., ground beef entrees that now use one-half ground turkey, or dishes that substitute low-fat cheese for full-fat)?

To figure this out, I invented an eight-year old boy, Jimmy, with the average height of 50 inches and average weight of 55 pounds (I got these figures from weight charts issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; given that 40% of Texas children are obese, Jimmy is lucky I allowed him to weigh in as an “average” child.)  I decided that little Jimmy is a couch potato, not very athletic and a big fan of video games and computers.  Then I went to a site that calculates lazy Jimmy’s caloric needs for the day:  1,426.   Ignoring the fact that today’s kids eat snacks — 98% of kids report eating at least three snacks a day, and 50% report eating five snacks a day — I generously allocated 1/3 of  Jimmy’s caloric requirements to each meal of the day — 475 calories per meal — so that he could really go to town on the lunch line without exceeding his caloric limit.

Next I pulled up Houston ISD’s August/September lunch menu and let Jimmy go through the lunch line for a single week (week of August 30th), picking what seemed to me to be the worst food choices I could find.  Following the guidelines in place in our district, Jimmy had to take one entree, and then could choose up to three other items, including milk.  To be fair to the district, I didn’t have Jimmy take every single thing served (although I’m not sure why I made that concession since many kids do take all the food offered.)

Here was Jimmy’s menu for the week:

Monday: Frito Pie (380 calories, 22 grams of fat); mac-n-cheese (38 calories/1 gram of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 568 calories/25.5 grams of fat);

Tuesday: Cheeseburger (340 calories/17 grams of fat); baked fries (124 calories/4 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 614 calories/23.5 grams of fat);

Wednesday:  Soft beef taco (524 calories/23 grams of fat): refried beans (123 calories/2 grams of fat): chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat)  (total = 797 calories/27.5 grams of fat);

Thursday: Pasta with meat sauce (355 calories/9 grams of fat) that comes with garlic toast (90 calories/3 grams of fat); jalapeno corn bread (no nutritional info available, so I used the district’s dinner roll as a reasonable proxy: 170 calories/9 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 765 calories/24.5 grams of fat);

Friday: Chicken tenders (243 calories/13 grams of fat) served with a dinner roll (170 calories/9 grams of fat); brownie (227 calories/7 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 790 calories/31.5 grams of fat).

Thus, on a daily basis, Jimmy is exceeding his artificially high (due to no allowance for snacks) calorie maximum at lunch by an average of 231.8 calories.  Since a pound of weight gain represents 3,500 unneeded calories, an extra 350 calories of food a day would cause a child to gain an extra pound every ten days (350×10).  So on this daily diet, supplied by his own school, little Jimmy may not be “little” for much longer.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this is a highly unscientific experiment, and doesn’t account for what Jimmy is or is not eating out of school.  (On the other hand, the experiment is generous to the district, in that Jimmy wasn’t permitted to eat any snacks, which is highly unrealistic.)  It’s also important to note that current USDA caloric requirements for school food are likely to decrease if Congress passes the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

But the experiment does make the point, I think, that for all the school food improvements we’ve seen in our district (and I’m grateful for all of them, don’t get me wrong), there are still offerings that permit kids to make very poor selections on the lunch line, selections that may well have an adverse impact on their health down the line.

All the more reason why, in the fight against childhood obesity, we must arm kids with nutrition education.   Unlike little Jimmy, we need kids to understand how to make the best choices for themselves, even when their school district isn’t making matters any easier by serving the menu described above.


  1. says

    Then you have to consider the minimum number of calories the USDA says your school must offer little Jimmy at lunch. That would be 664.

    Great experiment. At a certain point it becomes obvious that the numbers don’t work. But for me, even more importantly than the number of calories consumed is the type of foods being offered. Sugar and refined carbs have a special metabolic effect that leads to weight gain and a host of problems.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Ed: Agreed. I only alluded to the minimum caloric requirements in passing, when I mentioned that they should decrease under new regulations. However, it’s important to remember here that my Jimmy didn’t even take all of the food offered and he still came out above well above the 664 minimum. I don’t profess to understand the intricacies of how my district figures out the calories (I do know it’s averaged over a week) but it seemed to me that a kid ought to come out at less than 664 caloires if they’re not taking all the food, rather than over that figure. If anyone from HISD Food Services or Aramark is reading this and wants to shed some light on the issue, please leave a comment. – Bettina

      • hmmm... says

        Keep in mind: a maximum of 1/3 of student’s meals are eaten at school in a year.

        The Nutrient Standard Menu Planning approach is based on a weekly weighted analysis that uses projections of what students will actually choose. Have you ever visited TDA’s You will find a document with over 900 pages of rules and regulations that the schools have to follow and will explain the process of analyzing a menu using NSMP.

        FYI- I’m not from HISD

        • bettina elias siegel says

          hmmm . . . I appreciate the input. I’ll take a look at the TDA’s documents but I wonder – do you think I’m so far off? I don’t think what I chose for the child is food that he would be unlikely to choose for himself. For example, I left off vegetables because kids often won’t take them, even though that would have added more calories to support my point. Also, why only 1/3 of meals in a school year? What if a child is eating the First Class breakfast and also buying/receiving lunch? – Bettina

          • hmmmm... says

            I think you misread my comment. 1/3 of a student’s meals come from school. 178 days in a school year 2 meals a day = 356 meals. 365 days a year with 3 meals a day is about 32.5 percent, roughly 1/3 of meals come from school.

            • bettina elias siegel says

              Got it. Thanks. But what about my other question – do you think my calculations on the child’s consumption and potential weight gain are so off?

  2. Lisa says

    You have just illustrated beautifully the issue of having these choices. Any one thing alone isn’t too bad, but when a child can choose to eat pasta, garlic toast, and corn bread, with no fruit or veggie, that is a problem.

  3. says

    Bettina, I like your experiment and I think it’s an important result, but you are making one assumption that may not be warranted: That Little Jimmy is eating all of that food each day. I’ve seen how my daughters eat, at home and elsewhere, and unless it’s something they really like, they generally leave quite a bit behind. Obviously, each kid is different, and some may indeed chow down each day, but it’s not at all impossible that a kid on your HISD Diet could maintain or even lose weight. Just my $0.02.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Charles: I thought of that, too, as I wrote. No question that there’s a huge amount of food tossed in the trash. I guess I wanted to take on the HISD menu as written, just to see what would happen. But your point is a very important one in the real world.

  4. says

    So when my 10 year old “mysteriously” dropped 6 lbs this summer, and last spring was the first time ever he’d eaten HISD lunch every day (January-May), it WAS the lunch that made him gain the 6 lbs to begin with! ::shudder::

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Tari – It does make you wonder, doesn’t it? But I do take Charles Kuffner’s point that most kids don’t eat all of what’s served, so consider that, too, as you ponder the 6 lb. mystery. – Bettina

      • says

        Wm, not eat all he’s served? Oh no – pigs will fly first! :) But I can see how that might happen with other kids – I know we have a lot of wasted food at schools. And Chris is infamous for finishing his packed lunch at dinner; he definitely throws food away if he buys lunch.

  5. Maggie says

    Adding on, in a way, to the comment about how much of the food the children consume…I wonder about portion size. The posted nutrition info is vague in some instances. Beef Taco info looked high, until I saw it was for 2 tacos. Mac & Cheese info looks really low.

    It looks like your district uses the Nutrient Standard menu planning pattern. Means that they are aiming for a specific level of specified nutrients. I’ve never planned menus using the Nutrient Standard pattern, we use Food Based…meaning requirements of certain measures/ weights in the specified food “groups”. Both planning patterns do call for the same minimum number of calories and fat < 30% and saturated fat <10%.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      LOVE having a real food services person reading this blog, Maggie! Yes, HISD is Nutrient Standard. I, too, wondered about that mac-n-cheese and can only conclude that if the cheese is low-fat and the portion size small (it is just a side, after all), maybe the calorie count could be accurate?

  6. Maggie says

    That made me laugh – in a good way! A real, live food service person – that’s me. LOL.

    I like (not sure that’s quite the right word) to read blogs of folks who are concerned about school food to learn what can be done to improve and what needs to be improved, but so many are filled with inaccurate information & extreme emotion (understandable, since food is a subject filled with emotional and cultural connections!) that it can be frustrating and difficult at times. I appreciate that you have taken the time and made the effort to educate yourself (and others via your blog) about facts and reality that exist and have to be considered.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Maggie: I really appreciate that. I do try very hard to be objective on this blog and to always consider the monumental task facing my (or any) school district trying to feed huge numbers of kids on very little money. And that’s why it’s so great that you’re here – you can, when you feel like it. share your perspective from “behind the line.” – Bettina

  7. says

    Bettina: re gaining weight while eating lunch at school. My kids have done that since the beginning of this school year, I let them eat at Hamilton every day for a while. It’s over now, I make their lunches. Anyway, some days they would come home saying they ate “a slice of pizza” or “tater tots” and nothing else…and they were ravenous at 4:30 pm, began eating like crazy right before dinner, then dinner, then more food later. I think the lack of balance in the school lunch leads to hunger and the wrong kind of snacking as well. With a more nutritious, sustaining meal at lunch they might not feel the blood sugar skyrocketing at 4 pm.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Mary: Your middle school lunch room stories make my hair stand on end! Glad to hear that your kids are back to bringing lunches. – Bettina

  8. Well... says

    I know that the food isn’t always the best of the best and that there are a lot of calories, more than needed, per tray during lunch. You also need to realize that over half of the students we serve in our district go home everyday to no food at all, so in their world that lunch they ate at school has to provide for them all day. Depending on the school your at and their low SES numbers, state law requires them to provide all the calories a child needs to survive each day between the schools breakfast and lunch meals.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Totally agree that it’s important to remember the hunger side of the equation, too. I don’t know if you’re a new reader of TLT, but quite early on I began to raise this issue so that we don’t get so focused on obesity that we forget the very real problem of childhood hunger. (See In the Age of Childhood Obesity . . . Childhood Hunger?) But even food-insecure children and adults can be obese (a paradox that some have used to deny the existence of a hunger problem in America.) (See Great Story on NPR Today Re: the Hunger/Obesity Conundrum and Milk, Soda and Some Very Fuzzy Math). As for caloric requirements, I had always thought those were set solely by the USDA (which currently require that breakfast and lunch each provide 1/3 of a child’s RDA for calories), but it sounds like you’re saying that if a school is particularly impoverished, the calories go up? I’d love to know more about that if you have any regulations or web sites you could point me to. Thanks very much for commenting on TLT and raising this important point. – Bettina

  9. Joyce says

    Great virtual experiment! Aside from clearly needing better choices in our school, I think your experiement also clearly shows why it is so important for children to get daily exercise. They need to burn extra calories to help offset that extra intake. Even as an adult who eat a very well balanced and healthy diet, my metabolism has slowed as I’ve aged and exercise is a more and more crucial part of staying at a healthy weight. It’s so much easier to learn the habit early in life. We all need to encourage our kids to play in an active way!

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Joyce: Agreed. That’s a whole other side of the equation we need to be talking about. Thanks for leaving a comment! – Bettina

  10. Donna says

    It’s fairly common knowledge that the USDA uses our schools as a dumping ground, so I’m not surprised by the menu choices.

    My experience is that if you cut up the apples or the veggies kids will reach for them. I could leave an apple on the counter and it would rot into the counter before my daughter would touch it. However, if I sliced up the apple it was gone in an instant. The same with melons, oranges, carrots, etc.

    So, to answer your question, I think your experiment tells a revealing tale. First, we need to have better offerings at the lunch counter.

    Second, I don’t think your calcualtions considered the amount of energy required to be in school. You considered Jimmy to be a total couch potato, and in the school setting that’s just not realistic. He will fidget and move around and do a whole bunch of other things that he wouldn’t do at home. He will also use energy to think (the brain needs to eat, too) and physically grow.

    I don’t think the main cause of Jimmy’s potential weight gain is really the school lunch. Keep in mind that kids only go to school 180 days or so. Someone needs to count up the calories they actually consume at dinner. If Jimmy doesn’t know what a vegetable looks like, it’s because his mother never taught him, either.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Donna – not sure about your point about Jimmy’s caloric needs. Presumably the CDC, in setting the requirement for an eight-year-old boy of generally low activity, is still taking into account that he is of school age and expending whatever energy one needs to in that setting? In other words, I doubt they assumed such a child literally sits all day long with no activity at all. But as for your other point, I agree that sliced fruit is always going to be more popular. The problem is – who is slicing 240,000 apples in my district? They’ve gotten grant money for a fruit slicer but it will only be used for oranges. That’s great, but it still means a lot of whole apples and whole bananas in the trash. Thanks for commenting here! – Bettina

  11. Kerry says

    My daughter gained 12 pounds in the first 3 months of school while eating breakfast and lunch. I found out that she was being served pizza for breakfast nearly every day. On some occassions she was offered a poptart instead. At lunch she wasn’t encouraged to take anything that she didn’t want. So she usually didn’t. Also, extra things such as cake and desserts were brought around to her table on a tray and offered for free. After lunch at her school extras are sold and usually consist of things like chips or cheese curls and drink boxes.
    The problem is… the cafeteria workers pretend to be healthy only when the state inspector is there. They told the kids to take everything even vegetables and fruit. They were sold extras like apples and yogurt instead of chips. Then they were told they’d get a treat if they went along while the inspector was in. They were treated with ice-cream.
    The funny thing was that the children loved the fruit and yogurt and healthy food that was served and sold that day. It’s not that the kids won’t eat healthy foods.
    My daughter now eats breakfast at home and packs daily. It’s more expensive for me, but I have no choice.
    When I complained I heard a lot of teachers say that they too stopped eating school lunches after putting on pounds… and that is interesting when you have adults gaining weight after making what they thought were healthy decisions in the school lunch line.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Wow, Kerry. What a story! Terrible that the school was trying to put one over on the inspectors and heartbreaking to learn that the kids were actually fine with the healthy food instead of the chips, etc. that the school feels it needs to sell. I’m going to have a post in January, I hope, re: whether schools really make any money on the “a la carte” foods they think are so profitable.

  12. Kate says

    Does anyone know if serving sizes are different depending on the grade? I don’t think portion size gets talked about much vs. the type of food we should be eating.

    When my oldest was in sixth grade there was a huge range of sizes. There were kids that were as tall or taller than me, and ones that were well below 5 feet. Obviously an active boy who is tall for his age gets to eat more than a sedentary smaller girl. It might not be fair, but it is the way it is. Maybe there needs to be more focus on portions?

    • Bettina Elias Siegel says

      Kate – yes, under the National School Lunch Program, there are different serving sizes depending on the grade level. K-3 has different serving sizes than 4-12, etc. (I believe that in an elementary school that goes from K-5 or 6, an average is used — but don’t quote me on that.) But I agree – it’s a huge challenge to accomodate the needs of the Kindergartener and the growing 5th grade boy at the same time.

  13. Nikki says

    Don’t forget some schools offer breakfast…..the school I substitute teach at offers funnel cakes and poptarts!! Together!! I’m guessing that is another 400-600 calories easy with a milk so have almost blown their daily calories in 2 meals at school! (Plus, since it’s all carbs and fat they aren’t going to feel very satisfied by the time they get home!) Not to mention even if kids are being taught good eating habits at home if they aren’t being re-enforced at school, kid looks at mom and says what do you know, the school says nachos, sugar filled drinks and funnel cakes are fine!! We need better standards of nutrition and quality for what is being offered in schools!! Plus the kids that have to eat at school do so because of low income and they are most likely not getting good nutrition at home due to lack of parental involvement. Where are they supposed to learn good life habits if not at school??


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