School cafeterias are using cutting-edge market research to help get kids to eat healthy.

“Woohoo! It’s tater tot day!” might be a phrase of the past, thanks to new updates in federal guidelines regulating school lunch programs—the first in 15 years.

With new limits on calories, sodium, and saturated fats, as well as increases in minimums for fruits and vegetables, schools are revisiting their nutrition management. Thankfully, there are software programs, apps, and websites available to help schools, parents, and students make the transition successfully.

The updated federal guidelines were devised by the Agriculture Department and spurred by celebrity campaigns such as Jamie Oliver’s “Food Revolution” to rethink school lunch components and Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” to fight childhood obesity. They aim to improve the National School Lunch program by combating obesity, nutrition deficits, and hunger.

The changes were released in January and took effect this school year. They include the first national calorie and sodium limits for what can be served on lunch lines. Each new guideline is specific for grades K-5, 6-8, and 9-12.

For example, according to the School Nutrition Association, students in grades 9-12 should have 10 to 12 servings of grains per week and 10 to 12 ounces of meats and meat alternatives (such as nuts, tofu, cheese, and eggs) per week. By July 14, 2014, sodium levels for lunches should not exceed 740 milligrams for grades 9-12, and a timetable sets targets for further reducing sodium levels by 2022.

For fats, no more than 10 percent saturated fats are allowable, and no trans-fats, except for those naturally occurring in meat and dairy products, are allowable. Also, students in grades 9-12 should only have 750 to 850 calories per day; calories can be averaged over the week.

These new guidelines (the full guidelines can be found here) aim to help close nutrient gaps by providing one-third of the recommended dietary allowances of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, iron, calcium, and calories, essentially creating more nutrient-dense lunches.

These nutrient-dense lunches often were lacking in public schools, proponents of the new rules say, because budget cuts have forced most schools to forgo cooking fresh food in their cafeterias and instead buy pre-prepared lunches. These pre-prepared foods must be cheap and hold up during the ride from where they are prepared, usually resulting in students eating plenty of processed, high-sodium food.

Constance Brown-Riggs, an award-winning registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, and national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, described in a recent article how school lunches now might look different.

For example, pizza is experiencing a major overhaul with a low-fat, whole-grain crust, higher fiber, modified salt, and reduced fat and sodium cheese.

Before, she explained, a school lunch could have looked like this: A “bean and cheese burrito with mozzarella cheese, one-fourth cup applesauce, four ounces of orange juice, and eight ounces of 2-percent milk.” Now, after the new updates, a school lunch might look like this: A “submarine sandwich (once ounce of turkey, one-half ounce of low-fat cheese) on a whole wheat roll, one-half cup refried beans, one-half cup of jicama, one-fourth cup of green pepper strips, one-half cup of fresh cantaloupe wedges, eight ounces of skim milk, one packet mustard, one ounce reduced fat mayonnaise, and one ounce of low-fat ranch dip.”

“That’s actually a bigger meal,” said Brown-Riggs, “but it’s more nutrient-dense and has fewer calories.”

Though the new updates sound good in theory, already schools and parents are experiencing some setbacks.

For instance, a recent New York Times article reports that as a result of trying to re-engineer school lunch foods to make them healthier for students, New York City Schools actually dropped the calories below what the USDA had as a minimum for students.

In replacing pork bacon strips with turkey, for example, officials cut 64 calories from one serving but failed to add those calories back to the lunch with a healthy side or alternative.

“Our mentality is to feed food to children, not nutrients to astronauts,” said Eric S. Goldstein, the chief executive for school support services for the New York City Education Department.

According to the New York Times, the menu changes were part of a city-wide “campaign against childhood obesity and also included eliminating soda from all school vending machines, supplanting canned vegetables with fresh and frozen ones,” and many more changes.

Yet, some parents and nutrition advocates worry that calorie decreases will negatively affect students who don’t get enough to eat at home.

Nutrition experts quoted in the article said the argument boils down to better calories versus more calories.

New York City Schools also recently had to sever ties with a professional chefs program, called Wellness in the School (WITS), that aimed to provide fresher, healthier food in public schools. According to the city’s education department, the program’s approach does not comply with the requirements of the new guidelines, raising the questions: What, exactly, constitutes good, healthy food for students—and is freshly-prepared food better, or nutrient-rich food?

Another issue schools and parents are facing is student reaction to the updated guidelines. After all, getting kids to eat their vegetables isn’t always easy.

In many parents’ and administrators’ eyes, it will take more than a menu change to get kids to eat healthy; it will require a reinvention of childhood nutrition education.

Moving forward: Technology and nutrition education

Though defining what constitutes the best lunch for students is still under debate, the fact remains that if public schools want to continue receiving federal funding for lunch programs, they’ll have to comply with the updated guidelines … and get kids to eat their lunch.

“We don’t want healthy trash cans,” said Kern Halls, a former Disney World restaurant manager who now works in school nutrition for the Orange County Public Schools in Florida. “We want kids who are eating this stuff.”

At a School Nutrition Association conference in Denver this past July, Halls demonstrated some healthy recipes for curious cafeteria managers, joining White House Chef Sam Kass to prepare a veggie wrap using a whole-wheat tortilla.

Halls’ main mission, though, was not pushing new recipes, but teaching cafeteria managers the marketing strategies used to great success by private-sector restaurants and food producers.

The first step, cafeteria workers were told, is to stop thinking of lunchtime as a break from academics, but as a crucial part of a child’s school day.

“Your job is not to serve kids food. Your job is to motivate kids to be adventurous and healthy eaters,” said Barb Mechura, head of nutrition services at schools in Hopkins, Minn. Her school district recruited parent volunteers to be elementary school “food coaches,” touring cafeterias and handing out samples of fruits and vegetables. The food coaches also would demonstrate eating them.

Food coaching might seem silly, but kids who have eaten chicken only as nuggets or patties might not know how to eat bone-in chicken—and need to see how a grown-up eats it before trying it themselves.

As the kids graduate to middle and high schools, and grown-ups in the cafeteria aren’t as welcome, schools can tap student ambassadors to be food coaches, perhaps asking the baseball team or a popular student athlete to dish out veggies. Or, high school seniors might give underclassmen samples of a new vegetable coming to the cafeteria.

School cafeterias also are using cutting-edge market research. They’re filming what kids eat, test-marketing new products before they go on the line, and doing menu surveys to find out exactly what students think about a dish’s taste, appearance, and temperature.

A Colorado State University professor studied the dining habits of kids in Loveland, Colo., with an eye toward measuring ways to get them to choose healthier foods. Leslie Cunningham-Sabo, who photographed “before” and “after” pictures of kids’ lunch trays, found that kids eat more fruits and vegetables if they have lunch after recess, instead of before recess. She found that corn consumption went up when generic “corn” labels were replaced with colorful cards describing the vegetable as “mellow yellow corn.”

Another trick—just like supermarkets place impulse buys, such as candy and chewing gum, by the checkout—is for lunch lines to place easy-to-grab fruits and veggies by their cash registers. Cunningham-Sabo’s study saw cafeterias double their sales of fresh fruit when they were placed in colorful bowls in a convenient place.

The marketing doesn’t stop at the cafeteria doors. Lassen View Elementary School in Redding, Calif., got children to eat more fruits and vegetables when cafeteria manager Kathie Sardeson started a recess snack cart bringing the foods straight to the playground for kids to munch on.

Her school also bought an iPad 2 to raffle away to students who entered by choosing a healthy breakfast yogurt parfait and turning in tickets attached to the bottom. She tempted kids to try unusual flavors by giving out “Fear Factor Smoothies,” including unexpected ingredients such as spinach. Sardeson said schools can be persuaded to invest more in nutrition promotions, because the payoff is better students.

“We get a lot of feedback from teachers that behavior problems are way down because the kids are eating right,” Sardeson said.

Educators are coming around to recognizing value in having better school food, Mechura told the cafeteria workers.

“Food is one of the most important influences on your everyday brain cells,” she explained. Healthy eating habits, she argued, are as important as everything else schools are trying to teach.

“We have to change,” she said. “We have to build an environment that creates excitement about what we are doing, rather than fear of new foods.”

Software and apps also are available to help make the transition easier.

NuVal, a nutritional scoring system that labels food between 1 and 100—the higher the score, the higher the food’s overall nutrition—is being implemented this fall at Derby middle and high schools in Massachusetts on all a-la-carte items, such as milk, fruit, and side items, and on all vending machines.

NuVal officials say they hope the product will help students make better nutritional choices by putting scores on food items such as Cheetos (score 14), fruit snacks (score 6), Frosted Mini-Wheats (score 36), and so on.

In addition to the food scores, students also will participate in educational programs about nutrition at school, and their families will have access to education about how to receive the best nutrition for their grocery dollars.

NuVal Scores also are available at cafeterias and vending machines in Missouri, Minnesota, and Tennessee.

Another company, Revolution Foods, has teamed up with schools across the country to promote the concept of sustainable, cheap, and healthy foods for schools.

The company is able to provide meals for students at under $3 per child, which is how cheap they have to be for schools to get them fully reimbursed by the federal school lunch program for low-income families. The company cuts costs by buying less-processed ingredients, such as chicken on the bone or blocks of cheese that employees grate instead of the pre-grated kind.

“You can still access convenience with fresh ingredients,” said founder and former Citigroup investment banker Kristin Gross Richmond in a statement. “You just have to have really simple recipes and a simple toolkit.”

According to Hemi Weingarten, creator of the Fooducate blog, the company’s goal is to ignite a healthy food revolution by not only providing access to the highest quality meals, but also engaging directly with students to empower them to make healthier eating decisions for themselves.

“Each school is assigned a Revolution employee (School Account Manager, or SAM for short) with a nutrition background,” Weingarten explains. “Aside from overseeing the lunch program, the SAM teaches nutrition classes. And a few weeks ago, instead of a routine lesson with a whiteboard, the Bay area SAM did something really useful—she taught the kids how to read nutrition labels and ingredient lists. And in order to make it fun, she brought in some iPads with the Fooducate app on them. The children had to read product labels on everyday items and try to analyze and decide how healthy they are. After they came to a conclusion, they would scan the products with Fooducate and see if they were correct.”

Weingarten said the kids in the San Francisco Bay area were ecstatic about using a cool gadget like the iPad, and “hopefully they learned a thing or two about nutrition.”

He suggests getting kids excited about nutrition by using technology in class: “Bring in some supermarket products, teach the children how to read their labels, and then have some fun by scanning the barcodes with Fooducate (Android, iPhone, iPod, and iPad).”

Fooducate isn’t the only school lunch nutrition app available for schools and parents. Other apps include:

  • PowerSchool for Students: This student information system includes lunch transactions and balances. However, in order to take advantage, schools must use the PowerLunch Meal management system.
  • Aww Man! Meatloaf Again? This app allows parents to see what the school is offering their child for lunch that day and is currently offered in Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.

For parents who want to take a more active role in their child’s school lunch options, more software is available:

  • Mylunchmoney.com: A school lunch management solution, Mylunchmoney allows parents to view their child’s spending history, pay electronically, customize meal control settings, and set spending limits for their child.
  • MyNutriKids.com: This system for online school meal prepayments and nutrition education offers three services: MyKids for online prepayments; MyTray (interactive menus), where parents and students are able to view school breakfast and lunch options, while learning how food choices contribute to the nutritional quality of their diet; and MyNutrition, which provides educational opportunities for families and district staff related to health, nutrition, and physical activity. Resources include articles, tips, tools, recipes, links, challenges, and a section just for kids—designed to appeal to the entire school community.
  • PayPAMS.com: This online management solution allows parents to view balances, check a child’s spending habits, and more.

Not just for parents, there are also numerous school lunch software options that track nutrition:

  • Nutri-Link: This suite of lunch management systems aims to promote a healthy lifestyle for school communities by tracking school lunch nutrition and more.
  • NutriKids: This is the school lunch management system that hosts MyNutriKids. It aims to provide nutrition education and easy lunch management for students and schools.
  • Lunch Time Data Management: A management solution with federal and state reimbursement tracking reports. It allows parents to view all purchases online in real time, and more.