Apples vs. Chips: Help Kids Make Healthy A La Carte Choices at Lunch

apples and chips

Close your eyes and picture school lunch…

Most likely the image that appeared in your mind is of a compartment tray holding an entrée, fruit and/or vegetable sides, and a carton of milk. What you’re picturing is a typical meal offered through the National School Lunch Program. Schools participating in this program must offer a meat or meat alternate, a grain, low-fat milk or other dairy products, a fruit, and a vegetable for school lunch. For a flat price, usually around $2.50, students may select between three and five food groups for their meal, one of which must be a fruit or a vegetable.

If you’ve spent any time in a school cafeteria, you know there are options available that are not part of the main meal. Like it or not, ice cream, chips, baked goods, and other “snack” foods are often available to purchase a la carte during lunchtime to supplement purchased or packed lunches. These a la carte ‘competitive foods’ must comply with regulations: snack items offered must not exceed federal standards for calories, fat, or sodium per serving, and the first ingredient must be a whole grain, fruit, vegetable, dairy food, or protein food (e.g, nuts). While these standards do help ensure very unhealthy foods are not offered to students in schools, processed foods that don’t offer much nutrition are able to sneak in. For example, the first ingredient in corn chips is corn (a whole grain), and food manufacturers have reformulated or reduced portion sizes to fall within fat, sodium, and calorie limits.

However, students also have the option of purchasing any of the items offered with the main meal a la carte. This means that instead of buying a pack of cookies as a snack to go with his or her bagged lunch, your child could be choosing orange wedges or a fruit cocktail. Fresh fruit and vegetable selections available with school meals have increased dramatically since the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act was passed in 2010. Not only does this provide an opportunity for your child to select more fruits and vegetables, it is a cost effective way to add more produce to your child’s diet.

The cost of a la carte items is set by the school district. An informal review of a la carte pricing of fruits and vegetables in Maryland school districts showed that fresh fruits, fruit cups, or fresh veggies usually cost about $0.50 to purchase a la carte (note that some districts charged up to $0.75 for fresh fruit). Compare this to the price of purchasing these items at the store (nationwide average prices in March 2017):

  • Apple: $0.42/each
  • Orange: $0.36/each
  • Broccoli: $0.38/half cup serving
  • Tomatoes: $0.43/half cup serving

While it’s a few cents cheaper to buy these items at the store, having your child buy fruits or vegetables at school saves you from having to purchase, store, wash, and pack them in your child’s lunch. Those tasks add up to valuable time and money you can save by taking advantage of a la carte fruits and vegetables through the school lunch program.

A la carte items are important to school food service, because they produce extra revenue that helps them stay afloat and improve their operations. Unfortunately, school districts don’t often advertise the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables as a la carte snacks. Some food service workers and administrators believe (whether it’s true or not) that kids prefer packaged snacks to fruits and vegetables, so advertising a la carte fruits and vegetables is sometimes overlooked.

Having your child take advantage of fresh fruit and vegetable selections available on the lunch line might take a little research. The cost of a la carte fruits and vegetables may be listed on the school district website or on the monthly menu. But the surest way to find out if fruits and vegetables are promoted as a la carte items and how much they cost is to eat lunch in the school cafeteria. Find out if you can join your child for lunch. When you do, bring cash in small bills and make an a la carte fruit or vegetable purchase. Depending on what you experience, you may want to talk to the cafeteria manager about promoting a la carte produce sales, letting them know you are willing to help market the idea in the school. If the school has a PTA, they may help you disseminate this information.

Some schools not only offer fresh fruits and vegetables a la carte, but they’ve also employed smart pricing strategies to make it easier to buy these healthy items: they require that packaged snack items be purchased with cash, while fresh fruits and vegetables can be paid for with money on the child’s meal account. Kids are more eager to spend the ‘invisible’ money their parents put on their meal account and may save their cash for something else…and be more likely to buy the fruits or vegetable as a snack. If your child’s school district does not make this option available, find out if there is a school health council that sets wellness policies for the school district. If you have the time, you may ask about serving on the council to address healthy food in schools. If not, find out how you can submit this suggestion to them for inclusion in the wellness policy—it’s backed by research[i]!

Once your child has what he or she needs to purchase fruits or vegetables at school (cash in his/her pocket or money on a meal account), make a big deal about the fruit and vegetable options they can choose to buy at school, and follow up to find out what they ate. Perhaps they’ll start a new trend!

For more information on the National School Lunch Program, see


Chrissa Carlson, University of Maryland Extension


[i] Thomas, M., Desai, K. K., & Seenivasan, S. (2011). How credit card payments increase unhealthy food purchases: Visceral regulation of vices. Journal of Consumer Research, 38(1): 126-39.