Navigating Your School Cafeteria: Healthy Options For Athletes!

What aspects of nutrition help fuel athletic performance in a school cafeteria? My goal is to help you make better food choices than I once did. Here are options you have available right on your own campus. Check it out!

Article Summary:
  • There are a ton of healthy options when it comes to fast food.
  • The USDA standards do not apply to a la carte foods.
  • If you don't like anything that looks healthy, brown bag it.
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    Navigating Your School Cafeteria

    "School food tastes like cr@p and it isn't healthy." How many times have you heard that statement? As a dietitian, I know I've heard that or similar sentiments enough to make my eyes roll in the back of my head and my mind wander to other topics.

    Despite my pseudo-ADD to this subject area, I am sympathetic to the nutrition needs and taste buds of teenage athletes. And, I have fond memories of frequenting Little Caesars pizza during our open lunch periods in High School in search of something suitable for my picky food tastes.

    After spending years studying what aspects of nutrition and supplementation help fuel athletic performance, my goal is to help you make better food choices than I once did.

    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    My Goal Is To Help You Make
    Better Food Choices Than I Once Did.

    First, let's start by breaking down what options you have available right there on your own campus and then we'll compare these to your local options (for those of you who can wander off campus like I often did).

    If you don't pack your own lunch, you can choose from your school cafeteria line, vending machines, a la carte foods (the items sold separately, not as part of a meal on the regular tray line), and whatever junk is in your school store.

    Do You Pack Your Own Lunch?

    It Depends On My Funds

    School Cafeteria
    Otherwise Known As The National School Lunch Program


    In elementary school, we had a decent cafeteria that I ate in once a week: pizza on Fridays. When I brought my lunch the other four days a week I ate the same thing from the first grade through most of high school: one-half of a peanut butter sandwich (that's peanut butter on white bread), a piece of fruit and some sort of sweet snack. And, I'd buy the skim chocolate milk.

    When my mom, a butter lover, snuck butter or jelly on my sandwich, I'd scrape it off or throw it out because it didn't taste right. It's no wonder I spent years on the low end of the weight scale. I shutter to think about how much better my athletic performance would have been if I knew how to eat right. My determination and work ethic was there but I fueled my body like it was beat up scooter instead of a NASCAR race car.

    Rant About Cafeteria.
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    Rant About Cafeteria.
    I am really upset about the new meal plan my college has. I am going to be a sophomore, so I am forced to by the plan, since you have to live on campus and have the meal plan the first two years.
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    By the time I got to high school, my taste buds had developed just in time to have a cafeteria that had little, in my opinion, to offer. So I ate either my standard peanut butter sandwich as the main course or went to Little Caesars and ate their bread sticks soaked in butter and topped with some parmesan cheese or a piece of pizza.

    Though I realize school lunch isn't so glamorous, it is one of your best options for two main reasons. First, you'll get some variety. As you can see by the story above, I had little to no variety in my nutrition game plan (or lack thereof) as a kid and teenager.

    Most people eat the same twenty or so foods each week. By eating the same thing over and over you are missing out on a ton of nutrients in other foods. The many vitamins and minerals we need each day are spread out in many different foods. Ditto with antioxidants (many of which scientists are still discovering the roles they play in our health).

    Looking for copper? Beef, oysters, shiitake mushrooms, trail mix and crabs are the top sources for copper1. In search of iron? Plant-based sources of iron are poorly absorbed so if you aren't a vegetarian you better incorporate red meat, clams, dark turkey meat or at least white turkey meat or chicken breast into your diet2.

    Looking to ensure you are meeting your B vitamin needs? If you don't eat a fortified cereal with 100% of your Daily Value for B vitamins and skimp on meat, poultry, fish and turkey, you are probably falling short on at least one if not more, B vitamins.


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    The second reason you should take a peek to see what they are serving on the main line is that school cafeterias are required by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to meet certain nutrition standards. These include:

    • School lunches must provide 1/3 of the Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) for protein, calcium, iron, vitamin A, and vitamin C to the applicable age or grade groups and must also provide 1/3 of the calories needed by growing children based on the appropriate age/grade group; school breakfasts must provide 1/4 of the RDA for the same five nutrients and 1/4 of the necessary calories appropriate for the age/grade group.
    • School meals must meet the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for limiting calories from total fat to 30 percent or less and saturated fat to less than 10 percent.
    • In addition, school meals must address the issue of cholesterol, moderate the use of salt and sodium, and include more dietary fiber.

    Those standards aren't so shabby given the junk many students will opt for. Keep in mind though that these standards are averaged through the week so some items may be higher in sodium or fat in comparison to others served on different days.

    United States Department Of Agriculture
    The United States Department of Agriculture is a United States Federal Executive Department. Its purpose is to develop and execute policy on farming, agriculture, and food.

    It aims to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers, promote agricultural trade and production, work to assure food safety, protect natural resources, foster rural communities and end hunger, in America and abroad.

    Also, these standards do not apply to a la carte foods (those sold separately, not as part of a meal) or other foods and beverages sold in school snack bars, vending machines or various other places on school grounds3. So, if you aren't a very picky eater, one of your best nutrition bets is sitting on that plastic or paper tray on your cafeteria's main line. And typically, it's one of your least expensive bets as well.

    A La Carte Foods

    If you plan to choose foods on the a la carte line, bump up your nutrition knowledge. Granted, you should know that an eight inch diameter chocolate chip cookie isn't your best bet before you tackle a 2-hour football practice and an ice cream sandwich may not settle well before a 6 mile LSD (long slow distance) run. But, other choices aren't so obvious.


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    Some school districts are incorporating nutrition regulations on foods sold outside of the main cafeteria line, others are not. If you are curious about your own state, see this report by CSPI (scroll down to page 26).

    Here are some healthy choices on your a la carte line:

    • Vegetable or cheese pizza (the kind not dripping in grease that is)
    • Grilled chicken or pork sandwiches
    • Deli sandwiches (skip the mayonnaise or other creamy sauces)
    • Peanut butter and jelly sandwich (on whole wheat if possible)
    • Pre-made salads that are not loaded with wontons (low fat/fat free dressing)
    • Skim or 1% milk (chocolate milk is great post workout)
    • Fresh fruit or individual fruit cups packed in water
    • 100% fruit or vegetable juice
    • Low-fat or fat free yogurt
    • Whole grain cereals
    • Baked potato chips, crackers or pretzels
    • Low fat or fat free cheese sticks
    • Nuts and seeds (plain or salted)

    If you have questions about what is served on your a la carte line, ask. If it is pre-packaged from a company, someone that works in your cafeteria has a nutrition label for that particular food. And, if you think the food isn't healthy enough, ask your school administrators who you can speak with. Remember, school food is a business and you are their client.

    Vending Machines, Snack Bars, Etc.

    Vending machines are getting better. Many have taken out sugary carbonated beverages in favor of sports drinks and bottled water. And, some even serve sandwiches and fruit in addition to baked chips and pretzels. Staying hydrated is vital for every athlete so, drink something with meals and in between meals.

    If you are tired of skim milk or water but want something that tastes good, try a 12-ounce nutrient-packed vitamin water or sports beverage. Even with our best efforts, most of us are not getting enough of every vitamin and mineral we need to keep our body functioning properly. Look for something with added B vitamins to keep your energy level up.

    Vending Machine
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    Vending Machines Are Getting Better.

    Snack bars and school fundraisers typically have junk food on the menu. If you want something healthy, be an advocate and ask the people in charge. Many fundraisers actually use the money to fund sports teams. If they are funding your activities, don't you want them to serve something healthy (yet tasty) to the student athletes so they can perform well?

    Fast Food
    Obesity & Poor Athletic Performance Or Health Food?


    There are a ton of healthy options when it comes to fast and quick service food.

    There's Subway sandwiches (hey, it worked for Jerrod), grilled chicken salads and sandwiches and salad bars. So why is it that most teens are willing to work hard in the gym and on the field only to choose chicken fingers and fries, hot dogs (or corn dogs), tex mex and biscuits?

    Fast Food
    Enlarge Click Image To Enlarge.
    There Are A Ton Of Healthy
    Choices When It Comes To Fast Food.

    Did you know that KFC's popcorn chicken, baked beans, biscuit, fruit punch and Teddy Grahams has a whooping 940 calories4?

    Click On Your Favorite Restaurant To Learn The Truth!
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    © © © © ©

    When you are stuck staring down at a fast food menu, keep these points in mind:

    • Check the nutrition information. Most chain restaurants have it posted somewhere (fast food and quick service restaurants often have it in the restaurant itself; sit down restaurants typically have it on their website).
    • Eat your food naked. Choose food without added sauces and condiments, full fat salad dressings (oil based ones are usually healthy sources of fat), high fat cheeses, sour cream etc. If it comes with a sauce, ask for it on the side or without that sauce. Chances are you are saving a lot of calories, added sugar and fat.
    • Skip buffets. I had a college softball coach that took us to so many buffets that I can't bear to eat another yeast roll even years later. All-you-can-eat buffets not only tempt you to gorge yourself but they also usually have their formerly healthy veggies soaking in butter sauces (and by sitting out under those heat lamps those veggies are also losing nutrients).

      Fried meats, white bread, veggies soaked in high fat sauces and ice cream are the foundation of most all you can eat buffets. Salad-based buffets are a better choice (Super Salads for instance).

    • Take your time to order. If you aren't sure how something is cooked, ask. And don't be afraid to ask for something prepared the way you want it prepared. If the side vegetable dish comes with a cream sauce, ask for this dish steamed with no sauce. And if your friends make fun of you for asking for other options, remind them that you are an athlete and your performance depends in part, on what you eat.
    • Share your food. If you really want a dessert, share it or take part home with you for later.
    • Eat your fruits and vegetables first. Not only will this method ensure that you actually eat them but, you'll also get so full by the time your meal is done that you probably won't have much room for that double hot fudge sundae.

    With a little knowledge and a bit of planning, you can make healthy choices in your school cafeteria, favorite fast food chain, or sit-down restaurant. And if you don't like anything that looks healthy, brown bag it. But whatever you do, remember that you will train better and harder and perform better when you are fueled well and adequately hydrated.


    1. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service. 2007. USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference, Release 20. Nutrient Data Laboratory Home Page,
    2. Miret S, Simpson RJ, McKie AT. Physiology and molecular biology of dietary iron absorption. Annu Rev Nutr 2003;23:283-301.
    3. National School Lunch Program.