The Evolution of Nutritious School Meals – Yesterday and Today


School lunch has always been designed to provide school children with a healthy midday meal, but what exactly is a “nutritious school lunch” and how has it evolved over the years?  This article explores the school meals of yesterday and compares them to the school meals of today.   

The goal of school meals has always remained the same: provide a nutritious meal to students so they can be best prepared to learn. The ways in which this goal is accomplished has varied over the years.  Although the National School Lunch Act didn’t come to fruition until 1946, cities such as Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago were making significant progress in developing a model for school meals by the early 1920’s. Philadelphia’s Emma Smedley published a book called The School Lunch outlining the ideal plan for a school lunch program.  The menu is described as follows:

“The service is a la carte and consists usually of a soup and two hot dishes, cocoa with whipped cream, two or three varieties of sandwiches, milk, two or more home-made desserts, individual bricks of ice cream, fresh fruit, sweet chocolate and a variety of cookies. Sometimes there is a home-made cake” (Smedley, page 81).

Examples of menu items served for school lunch in Philadelphia in the 1920’s:

  • Lemon Butter Sandwich
  • Peanut and Cheese Sandwich
  • Sardine Sandwich
  • Tongue Sandwich
  • Oyster Soup
  • Fish Omelet
  • Minced Ham Sandwich
  • Creamed Dried Beef

The only nutrition recommendation in the book states that school lunch school be:

“made up of foods easily digested and simple enough not to tax the digestive system and divert to the stomach the blood supply needed by the brain for study” (Smedly, page 81).

By 1937, 15 states had legislation authorizing local school boards to provide school lunch. It wasn’t until the federal 1946 National School Lunch Act that nutrition standards were introduced.  The first nutrition standards required that whole milk, butter, protein-rich foods, fruits or vegetables, and bread products made with whole grains or enriched flour be served.  These standards reflect nutrition expertise of the time and were designed to meet the nutritional needs of students during the school day. 

In 1995, the USDA required school meals to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. The standard stated that school lunches provide at least 1/3 of the Recommended Dietary Allowances for selected nutrients, as averaged over the week. It also included a minimum number of calories per meal and put limits on fat and saturated fat.

There were no substantive updates to the federal nutrition standards for school meals until the Healthy Hungry Kids Act of 2010 (HHFKA).  The HHFKA aligned the school nutrition standards with the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

The following table highlights some of the key differences between the first school nutrition standards and the current ones.


Today’s popular menu items from across the country include:

  • Spaghetti and Meat Balls
  • Veggie Pizza
  • Sunbutter and Jelly Sandwiches
  • Broccoli and Beef Rice Bowls
  • Salad Bars
  • Yogurt Parfaits

The updates to school nutrition standards reflect increased knowledge of nutritional science and the evolving health of the population.   School nutrition programs have applied innovation, creativity, and resourcefulness to meet evolving nutrition standards, health priorities, and financial constraints for school meals. Today’s school lunch menus reflect federal nutrition standards, regional taste preferences, and availability of local foods.


Heidi Kessler, Smarter Lunchrooms National Office


Smedley, Emma. The School Lunch: Its Organization and Management in Philadelphia. Emma Smedley, 1920.