High-quality protein, like lean beef, is especially important for children because it supports the growth, repair and maintenance of all body tissues, makes red blood cells and boosts the immune system. Many research studies show a direct link between nutrient intake and academic performance. Zinc, iron and other nutrients are critical for brain development and function. In addition, sufficient protein is essential for children to perform their best both physically and mentally. These benefits provide excellent reasons schools across the nation can feel good about serving beef in school meals.

Back in 2012, the USDA updated its meal patterns and nutrition standards for the National School Lunch and National School Breakfast Programs to align with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and expert recommendations from the Institute of Medicine. Though the standards for the National School Lunch and Breakfast program are supposed to be updated consistently with the Dietary Guidelines in order to reflect the latest nutrition education and science, these changes were the first in more than 15 years. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, along with many other organizations, including the non-Checkoff/policy side of NCBA, submitted comments on the guidelines as far back as April 2011 in order to ensure that beef continued to be a part of the school lunch program.

A temporary modification to those standards was issued shortly after the implementation of the new rule that allowed schools the flexibility to serve larger portions of lean meat and whole grains in meals. Last week, USDA made the temporary rule final when they permanently removed the weekly maximums for grains and meat/meat alternates. The decision provides much needed stability for long-term meal planning, a promise the agency made to school nutrition professionals, according to USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon.

Schools can feel good about continuing to include high-quality protein, like beef, on the menu to help children get the essential nutrients they need for optimal health while still meeting the requirements for healthy school meal patterns. Schools are encouraged to build healthy menus that incorporate lean nutrient-rich protein, like beef, along with more fruits and vegetables and whole grains to help kids meet Dietary Guidelines and MyPlate recommendations.

Let’s face it: eating healthfully is tough to do. According to the annual International Food Information Council Foundation Food & Healthy Survey, more than half of Americans (52 percent) say that filing their annual income taxes is easier than knowing what to eat (and what to not eat) for optimal health.

As a result of changes to USDA’s National School Lunch Guidelines, the Beef Checkoff developed a series of ground beef recipes and a beef nutrition content to enable cafeterias across the country to serve entrees that feature nutrient-rich lean beef and meet the requirements for whole grains, vegetables, fruits and dairy. Each recipe was tested by school-age children, and included cost-effective ingredients that are easy to source for most schools.

The Beef Checkoff is continuously working to make sure that beef stays a central part of the healthy meals offered at school and is working with school foodservice operators to better understand the challenges they may be facing. We encourage parents to talk with their children about what they’re eating at school and even accompany them to school on a regular basis if possible (not just one day — the standards are meant to reflect a week of meals) to see what kids are eating, and whether they are eating food that’s on their plate.

By working together to bring these types of practical solutions to the table — such as hosting school meal taste tests for kids, incorporating foods they love, like lean beef, into menus or having conversations with our kids about the foods they’re eating and helping them understand the importance of choosing nutrient-rich foods — we can truly make a positive difference in the future of our childrens’ health.

Click here to see new kid-friendly recipes and to learn more about the power of beef.