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Standing Up for Potatoes in Schools

As a Registered Dietitian, spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association (ADA), and School Nutrition Professional, I support the effort to expand kids’ exposure to different fruits and vegetables (including those leafy greens and orange veggies). However, I am concerned about how far the USDA proposed rule for school meals goes in limiting the starchy vegetables (essentially to only one serving a week of either potatoes, or corn, or peas, or lima beans). Particularly when you lump peas and corn in with the potatoes, you’re severely limiting children’s favorites, and restricting efforts by schools to offer some healthy, locally grown foods that kids love.

Many school nutrition programs, including my own, offer baked potato bars which allow kids to choose from toppings like broccoli and low fat cheese, salsa, and ground turkey to top off their potato with. For this reason, the School Nutrition Association recommends ending the practice of deep-frying vegetables, but loosening proposed restrictions on starchy veggies prepared in a healthy way. I support this recommendation as the potato, when prepared without deep fat frying, has great nutritional value as part of a healthy breakfast or lunch meal.

It’s a surprise for many to discover that one medium potato (5.3 oz) with the skin contains 45% of the daily value for vitamin C; as much or more potassium (620 mg) than either bananas, spinach, or broccoli; 10% of the daily value of B6; and trace amounts of thiamin, riboflavin, folate, magnesium, phosphorous, iron, and zinc—all for only 110 calories and no fat.

In addition to vitamins and minerals, potatoes also contain an assortment of phytochemicals with antioxidant potential, most notably carotenoids and anthocyanins (Brown et al. 2001, 2004).

What you top your potato with determines how healthy it is for you. So why not substitute your normal toppings with some delicious alternatives.

Here are some ideas worth a taste:

  • Broccoli and low-fat cheddar
  • Salsa, nonfat yogurt
  • Vegetarian chili
  • Marinara sauce and parmesan cheese
  • Grilled veggies
  • Even fat-free ranch dressing is a nice substitute for sour cream

Getting kids to eat the variety of foods needed for growth and development is a challenge at home and also in the school meal setting. The USDA proposed meal pattern for both breakfast and lunch severely limits school programs from offering a healthy version of kids’ favorite—the potato. I support offering healthy prepared versions of the potato on the school menu because potatoes are available locally, thus supporting farm to school efforts. Potatoes contain significant nutrients as part of a balanced meal, and they are a vegetable we know kids will eat.

Debbi BeauvaisDebbi Beauvais, RD SNS
Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association

2 Responses

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. Potatoes are a very nutritious food and provide significant nutrients. They can be prepared in a wide variety of healthy ways and are affordable. We need to look more at overall dietary patterns and menu plans than individual foods.

  2. Debbie, you have written a compelling post on why not to limit a specific food. Potatoes can fit well in school lunches as a low-fat nutritious food as you described. Let’s not altogether omit good foods that are nutritious because they are not prepared well. Your potato bar approach is a great example of preparing a balanced lunch students would enjoy.

    I’m concerned that school lunches will be so focused on avoiding certain foods and specific nutrients that we will lose sight of the importance of eating enough of under-consumed nutrients through good-tasting whole foods. School lunches need to work in tandem with nutrition education in the classroom and at home to encourage families to make good choices in all settings.

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