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The Power of Plant-Based School Meals

by: Sarah Carlson, MS, RD, LD

Welcome to 2024.  A year where we are seeing more plant-based options than ever before.  It is difficult to walk a grocery store aisle without seeing something denoting plant-based, vegetarian or vegan.  The world is asking and the industry is listening.  Next time you are at your favorite restaurant, take a look at the menu and see if their dishes are denoted as vegetarian or vegan.

You may be asking yourself, “What is plant-based?”  A plant-based food or diet consists of items that do not contain any animal products or byproducts.  These items will not contain any dairy or egg derived ingredients.  A plant-based meal focuses on whole food sources just as fruits, vegetables, nuts & seeds and whole grains.  Eating these meals can be micronutrient dense and provide adequate fiber and protein.

Selecting a plant-based, plant-forward meal can provide many nutrients.  However, do not be fooled.  A creme filled cookie whether plant-based or not, is still a treat and provides little in the way of nutrients. The goal when thinking plant-based is to incorporate more whole foods and less heavily processed items into school meals. 

Consider the colors of the rainbow and how beautiful and appetizing a plate full of color is.  Did you know that the color of the food is directly related to the nutrients it contains?  Fruits and vegetables that are purple contain the antioxidants anthocyanins.  Foods that are red, such as tomatoes and watermelon, are rich in lycopene.  Lycopene plays a vital role in heart health.  Orange/yellow fruits and vegetables contain carotenoids which are vital for eye health.  Last, but certainly not least, are the green fruits and vegetables that contain vitamin C, folate, calcium and iron.  Clearly, these foods play a key role in overall health.

Thinking this is too complicated?  Try starting with a Meatless Monday option such as veggie burgers made with black beans, sweet potatoes and tons of fresh herbs and spices.  Burgers are a common food in many households and is a fun way to get the family involved in making dinner.  Everyone can add their own seasoning blend to create a unique flavor profile.  Don’t love the taste of vegetables?  Try adding them to your fruit smoothie for the added micronutrients without all the chewing!  

Selecting plant-forwarded items can be easy and fun!  Try a new recipe this month that is plant-forward.  It will help shake up your school meal repertoire.


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