Grading school meals

Today's school meals are more healthful than ever, now that federal guidelines require school meals to pass muster with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants meals to feature more fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean protein sources.

Children will eat approximately 4,000 school meals from kindergarten through high school graduation. Dietitian and school nutrition expert Dayle Hayes encouraged parents to get involved and offered these tips.

Go Greek: There is a USDA pilot program in four states (New York, Idaho, Tennessee and Arizona) that features authentic, all-natural Greek yogurt in school meals in various ways. In addition to being offered in traditional yogurt cups, it is also used in recipes for sauces, dips and baked goods. Greek yogurt provides extra protein and calcium in meals, while also lowering the fat and sodium content. This option is also a huge plus for vegetarians. Parents can check out to learn more about the program sponsored by Chobani.

Veg out: Vegetables in schools are offered in greater quantity, variety and color. Hayes said this adds visual appeal and is a great way to get kids interested as well as introduce them to more options, such as orange sweet potatoes (potassium boost) and red peppers (vitamin C-loaded).

Grain of truth: At least half of the grains in school meals will come from whole grain sources, Hayes said. Whole grains can be used as breading for baked (not fried) chicken, and more school meals are including quinoa, couscous and whole grain bread.

School yourself on what's new: Is it time to go back to school? Hayes wants parents to try a school meal themselves, showing their children the importance of good nutrition. In addition to asking their children what they eat at school each day, parents should try to serve some of the healthful options at home, too. Most schools make menus available to parents, and some even offer updates on smartphones. If kids eat the same foods at home, they'll be more accustomed to what's being served at school. Ultimately, they'll develop healthier eating habits and likely do better in school, too.

McClatchy News Service