How Many Calories in a School Lunch?

By Ali Luke

calories-in-school-lunchDo you know how many calories are in your child’s school lunch?

A panel from the Institute of Medicine (part of the National Academies) has recommended to the government that school-provided meals should include more fruits, vegetables and wholegrains – even though this would push costs up.

You might think this is a no-brainer: of course our kids should be getting healthy and nutritious meals at school.

With nearly a third of American children overweight or obese, schools need to set a standard for healthy eating.

But the cost of fresh produce could push an average school breakfast up by 25% and a lunch by 9%.

Obama has suggested a $1 billion a year increase in funding for school meals.

But…. there’s currently no source for that extra money.

Recommendations from the Institute of Medicine

The report by the Institute of Medicine recommended:

  • An upper calorie limit (currently, there’s only a set minimum calorie amount per meal)
  • Gradual lowering of salt levels over the next decade
  • At least half of the breads and grains provided should contain 50% wholegrains
  • More fruit servings – no more than half of them as juice
  • More vegetables – focusing on leafy green and orange vegetables rather than starchy ones like potatoes
  • Serving 1% or fat free milk, to cut saturated fat levels

Maximum calorie levels for School Lunches

Lunches should not exceed:

  • 650 calories for students in grades K-five
  • 700 claories for children in grades six-eight
  • 850 calories for those in grades nine-12.

Breakfast calories should not exceed:

  • 500, 550, and 600 calories respectively for these grade groups.

Why not just pack their lunch?

In a perfect world, yes, that would be the perfect solution.

However, many of the kids most at risk for obesity are coming to school relying on it to provide nourishment.

Many parents lack the knowledge or even money to pack healthy lunches for their children.

The school lunch is perhaps the one place where these at risk kids should be getting a nutritionally dense, high quality meal.

If your kids eat school breakfasts or lunches, do you have concerns about the nutritional standards and the amount of calories in their school lunches?

Does their school provide plenty of healthful options?


  1. Preston

    I’m 13 and I think school foods are fattening because I wrestle and I weigh 147 but I used to weigh 150 but during Thanksgiving break I did nothing and I lost 3 lb but during the week I work my butt off in practice and lose nothing but since I didn’t eat the school food I lost weight, I also found that the pbj’s here are alone 600 calories!

  2. emma

    im 13 and 65 pounds and i don’t get school lunch cuz our school has bad food

  3. freshmen

    last time i checked SCHOOLS DONT COOK ANYMORE THEY JUST HEAT UP EVERYTHING! everythings PROCESSED causing kids to gain fatty weight not muscle nor vitamins or proteins we need.

  4. Ryan

    I am 16 , on the football team, 5’8 and 150 i am just trying to put on weight for football and the school lunches do not help at all, but i cant afford to pack my lunch every day.

  5. Lovelyg

    i am 10 years old and 71 pounds. I am very athletic and my dad trys to keep me healthy. School lunch is NOT the way to go.

  6. haley

    japan has like 700 less than us lunches

  7. Softball Girl Forever

    I’m a thirteen year old girl who is extremely active, 5’5″, and 103 pounds and almost no body fat. I eat like a horse and I bring my snacks to school. According to a calorie calculator, I need 2649 calories to maintain my weight. I don;t have time in the morning or night before to pack a home lunch, and I have to suffer with school cafeteria food. It’s not enough- I’m supposed to end up being 5’8″, and these rations aren’t gonna help. It’s not the schools’ fault that children are obese. It’s the parents. A 700 calorie lunch isn’t gonna cut it for me, and it doesn’t. My parents make me be as active as possible, and it’s the other children’s parents that let them eat junk food galore and not do sports and instead sit and play COD all day. Not me. I pitch for an hour almost every day, and have one and a half hours of softball including on Friday. I love to be outside. This lunch sucks.

    • asdf

      Nobody needs to hear your life story. Jeez. And some people have horrendous metabolisms and try to be healthy, unlike you with your perfect genetics. Just because someone is “overweight” doesn’t mean they sit around eating deep fried twinkies while playing CS:GO, you dolt.

    • Preston

      no one cares!!!!!!!

      • Preston

        sorry my friend sent that off my comp.

  8. Michelle

    My boyfriend’s daughter is obese, a problem that occurred before I met them. I have put us all on low fat diets and we have all increased activity. SHe was beginning to drop a little weight, then- school back in session. no loss in 2 weeks, although our diet and activity levels at home are good. So yes, I do believe the schools’ diet is not sufficiently low in fat and calories to help us achieve our goals. And feel like it is an uphill battle, beating my head against the wall. SO even though he really can’t afford it, he is packing her lunch more days than not, so we know she isn’t eating really high fat fare

  9. Donna

    So let me get this straight once again we are going to blame someone else for what goes on in our own home. I live in the country where weight is not an issue for most. I have a 17 year old son that plays football, baseball, golf,runs track and plays tennis. He also spends a long periods outdoors. He is 5’10”, 175lbs with 10% body fat. Now the state wants to say that 850 calories for lunch is sufficient to sustain this child. According to live strong this child needs 3133 calories a day just to maintian his weight. He does not drink sodas (his choice) he eats lot’s of fresh fruits and veggies (his choice) he eats sweets in moderation once again his choice. He was raised with good eating habits. He works out 5 days a week and runs 6 days a week. So now the state has decided to punish him becouse he is not fat. The school has never made any of my 5 children over weight. They all grew up participating in sports and life. They have never had weight issues nor eating disorders. Until this nation takes responsibilty for itself and stops blaming everyone else for what is wrong we are doomed to fail!!!!!

    • please

      get over it

    • colorado

      THANK YOU!!!!!!

  10. Layla

    Well its a good option to be able to get things between classes if we’re hungry, and actually a lot of the things in the vending machines have fewer calories than the foods for lunch, although most schools don’t even have snack machines, its just drink machines, which are ridiculous because they make water and juice more expensive than soda.

  11. Lydia Washington

    Do you think that childhood obesity should be considered child abuse?

  12. Lydia Washington

    If I think that the school lunches have too many calories, I would just pack my lunch. If I want a school lunch, then I want a school lunch and I’m going to get it. The problem is that the government seems to be trying to FORCE kids into eating healthy instead of just allowing them to have whatever they want. Like a mom or dad forcing their kids to eat broccolli, the government is forcing us to eat foods with whole grains, 1% milk, and more fruits and vegetables. The government seems to believe that people can’t make good choices on their own and they, and only they alone, have the brilliance and the power to make sure that students eat healthier. Because we all know (or at least the government knows) that if I dare have a candybar, the moon will turn bloody red, stars will fall onto the Earth, disease will rampage, and a black dragon… Oh wait! Wrong description. Anyways, you get the idea.
    Besides, since when did the government have the right to tell people what they should and shouldn’t eat? Oh, wait. I remember now. Ever since the whole “Obesity Crisis” that the government never fails to recognize, there have been more and more restrictions on what students can and can’t eat. Because, it’s a crisis. And just because it is a so-called crisis, the government automatically has the authority to do whatever they wish. Global Warming? Try to make people buy “energy effecient” cars. Over-seas terrorism? Make people be subjected to being sexually abused. Obesity crisis? Make sure that everybody within our grasps, the public school students, be pushed into eating our ****. You see the same pattern time after time again.
    And for God’s sake! What about the students who are actually trying to GAIN weight? Many high schoolers are anorexic! Try helping them out for a change.
    Another good point to ask yourself: Is the percentage of overweight children REALLY that high? I mean, if there was an obesity crisis, wouldn’t that just help grow the government and wouldn’t many companies who focus on peoples’ weight benefit from having the percentage as high as it seems to be? I mean, all you had to do is just tweak a few numbers and it’s not like it hasn’t been done before…

    My Body Mass Index Number: 19.6

    • Victoria

      anorexia isn’t defeated by the option to eat fatty foods. anorexia is a MENTAL DISORDER? they’re not going to eat no matter what the school provides. besides, do you really think that the weight high schoolers are trying to put on is the weight that comes in a big mac? try good fats and good protein, not saturated hydrogenated trans bullshit!

      • baker

        thank you! seriously, it’s not the government’s jobs to cater to people with eating disorders, and serving high calorie food isn’t going to make them any better. if someone needs to gain weight, they need to have healthy fats & sugars. And lydia, the government isn’t trying to force you to eat anything, its simply the fact that the only meals some kids are having are at school, and schools want to make them healthy, so that the only sugar and calories they’re getting aren’t from candy bars and big macs.

        • Ted

          Yeah totally, If people and kids didn’t eat so much packaged foods we wouldn’t be discussing obesity or BPA poisoning would we. The solution that would solve both problems is to get rid of processed and packaged foods from the diet as much as possible.

          • haley


          • Preston

            that kinda needs to happen!!

  13. Samuel Shotgun

    Dont be a jack ass.
    a large amount of children eat their lunches at school and are provided with the money to do so by their parents.It is the governments job to ensure schools-which hey guess what are government run- provide children with the proper nutrients that a school lunch should contain.Skittles and Twizzlers and Coca-cola being sold in vending machines doesnt help much. eVEN THE ‘OFFICIAL’ cafeteria food is bad.
    They serve pizza pretzels and cgicken which contains only 50% chicken and some how get it passed as HEALTHY!

  14. Samuel Shotgun

    Way to copy and paste exactly from the official document.

    • Preston

      ya, bro! you don’t cuss ether

  15. lynn

    to arrowsmith……do you own stock in the steel cut oats company?
    my high school had a great salad bar that included fruits, nuts, and and whole wheat garlic rolls.

  16. b

    One of the huge problems with the federal school lunch program is that it’s run by the USDA, and is used by them to help support farmers. The menus aren’t designed based on what’s healthiest, they’re designed based on what crops have a surplus that farmers need to unload – this is why corn gets served more than any other vegetable.

    What we feed our children shouldn’t be dictated by politics, and until the two are separated there won’t be any improvement.

  17. Katie

    That won’t solve the problem of teaching kids how to eat properly. Sure, they might get “healthy junk foods” in school, but when they get into the real world, those healthier versions likely won’t be there and they won’t be used to eating actual healthy foods.

  18. Barry

    I eat Captain Crunch and Fruity Pebbles and get ripped.

  19. Barry

    If parents are unable to provide meals for their children it raises the obvious question: Should those parents be entrusted with the responsibility of raising and caring for those children?

    The Government should not be supplying food for children. If parents cannot feed their own kids, then those kids, sadly and regrettably, need to be removed from the home and put into foster care.

    • Alexandria

      Just chill man.Just because a parent doesn’t have time or money to make breakfast and lunch for their child doesn’t make them a bad parent.My mother is a great on and I get most of my meals from school and after school programs.

    • Nicholas

      you have missing brain cells

  20. ArrowSmith

    What we need to do is have families simply have a crock pot and cook 12-minute steel cut oats for their kids in the morning. Nothing fills you up better and it sticks to the ribs for hours! I usually make it with 2% or whole milk, adding a touch of honey and goat cheese, and sometimes add in a bit of protein. YMMV.

  21. ArrowSmith

    Of course this is from the same leftie bureaucrats who keep bleating to the masses about “saving the environment”. So much for that.

  22. ArrowSmith

    Those are the least harmful cereals, but you really should eat steel cut oats. Traditional or the quick variety it doesn’t matter.

  23. Just Me

    Here’s a FACT. Kids don’t eat the lunches they are given for free. My mom taught first grade in Huntington Park, CA from the 60’s to the 90’s.

    I used to visit sometimes and watched as the kids picked up their FREE lunch and took it from the lunch line to the dumpster, then went home to eat tacos and burritos made by mom. This goes on day in and day out at schools across the country. Can you even imagine the waste? It boggles the mind. Cartons of milk, fresh fruit, etc etc all going into the dumpster.

    Think I’m lying? It’s the truth. The cold, hard truth.

  24. Angie

    To be fair some of the other ceareals aren’t bad, I like shredded wheat and cheerios.

  25. ArrowSmith

    Sugar cereals are no an improvement! Might as well eat donuts! Steel cut oats or bust is my motto!

  26. Chris

    My son bought lunches last year and I was not impressed at all. They served pizza, hamburgers,chicken nuggets, waffles, french toast, chocolate milk, salad, fruit packs, ice cream, and cookies. I did talk to my son and he said the salad was a good size. Did my son eat that. Of course he did not. He chose the unhealthy food. That is the reason we do not buy lunch anymore.

  27. For Posts Only

    Well, I feel pretty fortunate to live in a community that offers salad bars and freshly made meals in my kids’ schools. They still get pizza Friday which is delivered, but I think that’s reasonable. My older son gets to buy lunch on Thursday and Friday, my younger son on just Friday (still in preschool). The rest of the week I make lunches. I’ve also learned to make the lunches fun by adding stickers, or notes, or using sandwich picks or fun baggies, etc.

  28. Spectra

    Our HS didn’t even have cereal…all they served for breakfast were donuts, PopTarts, various flavors of Powerade, bottled OJ, and bananas if you were lucky. Even sugary cereals might have been an improvement on that garbage.

  29. ArrowSmith

    One big change they could make for those kids getting breakfast at schools is to provide old-fashioned steel-cut oats instead of the sugar cereal garbage. That will provide them a good 4 hours of nutrition and fullness!

  30. Scott Dawson

    Excellent points! Before we started paying close attention to the calories in lunch items, I confess I was unaware of how quickly they added up. It’s useful to search around for tools to help raise awareness; for example, we use to build a virtual lunch, seeing how the total calories come out after adding different items. I think educating parents and kids, coupled with providing a variety of healthy foods, is key to helping switch our perceptions of what constitutes a “healthy” lunch.

  31. Angie

    Why not make healthier alternatives to these foods? There are ways to make pizza, hot dogs and the like healthy. My HS served the greasiest ala-cart food, which is why I never ate it, but why not let the kids have these options but done in a way that they don’t have to sacrifice nutrition? It maybe hard to come up with a healthy alternative to nachos but why not?

  32. Kellie - My Health Software

    I am pretty sure this has come up here before, but I say get rid of the vending machines.

    If there is junk food and drinks in vending machines then they will always have the option to eat that. Even if you provide healthier options the junk food in vending machines will tempt some away.

  33. Spectra

    What schools need to do is to stop serving so many a la carte items like fries, pizza, chili dogs, etc. and start just offering one complete meal and maybe a salad bar or something. At least provide some healthier stuff for kids to choose from so they aren’t tempted by the high-fat stuff.

    • Melissa

      That is exactly right! I honestly don’t know why no one is realizing this!! If schools don’t make changes soon, something horrible is bound to happen!

  34. ArrowSmith

    Serving 1% or fat free milk, to cut saturated fat levels

    Why oh why? Protein goes best with fat, no need to give kids anything less then whole milk.