The new meal pattern regulations: What they mean to you

Part one of two looking at the new meal pattern.

Jan. 26—Yesterday the USDA released the final meal pattern regulations as required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. Today, we’re breaking down what those requirements mean for child nutrition operators. Part I looks at the new meal pattern. Part II looks at dietary specifications.

Food-based menu planning approach: Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, food-based menu planning will be required for the National School Lunch Program. Food-based menu planning does not need to be implemented for breakfast until the 2013-2014 school year. The USDA says more than 70% of program operators currently use a food-based menu planning approach.

Plan meals using the following age/grade groups, K-5, 6-8 and 9-12: This requirement begins SY 2012-2013 for lunches and SY 2013-2014 for breakfast. The rule allows schools to use one meal pattern for students in grades K-8, as food quantity requirements for those two groups overlap.

Increasing the amount of fruit: Fruits and vegetables are now separate food components in the NSLP. For lunch, schools must offer at least 2 ½ cups of fruit per week and ½ cup per day of fruit for students in K-8. For students in 9-12, schools must offer at least 5 cups of fruit per week and one cup per day. This requirement begins SY 2012-2013.

For breakfast, schools must offer 1 cup of fruit per day and 5 cups per week for all ages. This begins SY 2014-2015.

Schools are allowed, however, to offer vegetables in place of all or part of the required fruit component for breakfast, beginning July 1, 2014, so long as the first 2 cups per week of any such substitution must be from the dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes) or other vegetable subgroups. Starchy vegetables, i.e. potatoes, may also be offered in substitution of fruits, once the first 2 cups of non-starchy vegetables have been met. (See offer verses serve section for further information regarding fruit requirements.)

To meet the fruit component for both breakfast and lunch, the items must be fresh; canned in fruit juice, water or light syrup; frozen without added sugar; or dried. One-hundred percent fruit may be offered, however, no more than half of the per-meal fruit component may be juice.

Increasing vegetables: Schools must offer more vegetables to all students. For K-8, schools must offer at least 3 ¾ cups vegetables each week and ¾ cup per day. For 9-12, schools must offer 5 cups of vegetables each week and 1 cup per day. Schools must offer vegetable subgroups—dark green, red/orange, beans and peas (legumes), starchy and other—during the course of the week at minimum requirements beginning SY 2012-2013. The following amounts are the new requirements for vegetable subgroups for lunches:
Dark Green: ½ cup (all ages)
Red/orange: ¾ cup (K-8); 1 ¼ cup (9-12)
Beans/peas (legumes): ½ cup (all ages)
Starchy: ½ cup (all ages)
Other: ½ cup (K-8); ¾ cup (9-12)

Beans and peas (legumes) can be credited toward the vegetable component. Green peas, green lima beans and green string beans are not considered part of this subgroup.

Schools can serve fresh, frozen and canned vegetables.

Grains: For NSLP, in SY 2012-2013 and SY 2013-2014, whole-grain-rich products must make up half of all grain products offered. During this time only, refined-grain foods that are enriched may be included. Starting SY 2014-2015, schools must offer only whole-grain-rich products. A whole-grain-rich food must contain at least 51% whole grains and the remaining grain content must be enriched. Starting SY 2012-2013, schools must offer a weekly grains range. For K-5, schools must offer an 8- to 9-ounce equivalent per week and 1 ounce per day; 6-8, 8- to 10-ounce equivalent per week and 1 ounce per day; and 9-12, 10- to 12-ounce equivalent and 2 ounces per day.

For breakfast, weekly grain ranches and the half of whole-grain-rich requirements begin July 1, 2013. All grains offered starting in SY 2014-2015 must be whole-grain-rich. The weekly grain ranges are as follows: K-5 (7 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day); 6-8 (8 to 10 ounces per week and 1 ounce per day); and 9-12 (9 to 10 ounces per week and one ounce per day). Once schools meet the minimum daily grain quantity of 1 ounce, they are allowed to offer a meat/meat alternative in place of grains, which counts toward the weekly grains requirement. A 1-ounce equivalent of meat/meat alternative is equal to 1 ounce of grain. The final rule does not require a meat/meat alternative daily at breakfast.

Schools may count two grain-based desserts per week as part of the weekly grains requirement.

Meat/meat alternatives: Schools must offer a minimum amount of meat/meat alternative per day for NSLP beginning SY 2012-2013. For 9-12, that amount is a 2-ounce equivalent; for K-8, that amount is a 1-ounce equivalent. Schools also must serve a weekly requirement; K-5 (8 to 10 ounces per week and one ounce per day), 6-8 (9 to 10 ounces per week and once ounce per day) and 9-12 (10 to 12 ounces and 2 ounces per day).

Schools can offer commercially prepared tofu as a meat alternative. Mature beans and dry peas (kidney beans, pinto beans, black beans, garbanzo beans/chickpeas, black-eyed peas, split peas and lentils) may be counted as meat alternatives. However, those beans and peas may not count for both a meat alternative and vegetable in the same meal.

Fluid milk: Schools may only serve fat-free flavored milk and fat-free or low-fat non-flavored milk, starting SY 2012-2013. Fluid milk must be offered with every school meal; however, students may decline milk under offer verses serve. Water must be available in the service area, but water may not be offered in place of fluid milk for a reimbursable meal. This rule does not affect the nutrition standards for optional non-dairy drinks offered to students with special dietary needs.

Offer verses serve: Students must select a fruit or vegetable to make a reimbursable meal starting SY 2012-2013 in NSLP. For breakfast, this is effective SY 2014-2015, which coincides with the increased fruit amount. Students are, however, allowed to take ½ cup of a fruit or vegetable, rather than the full component, to make a reimbursable meal under offer versus serve. Students are still allowed to decline up to two food components at lunch.

For breakfast, schools must offer fruit, milk and grains daily. When schools offer more than four items at breakfast, students may decline one.

Salad bars must meet new requirements under offer versus serve. If items on salad bars are not proportioned, staff must be trained to accurately judge the quantities of self-serve items to determine if the item can count toward a reimbursable meal.