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school meal patterns for planning menus that are consistent with Dietary Guidelines for Americans; (4) the design and use of spreadsheets to test possible meal patterns against the preliminary nutrition targets established in Chapter 4; and (5) the testing of a series of possible standards for menu planning and evaluation of the resulting menus in terms of nutrient content, cost, and suitability for school meals. These steps are described briefly below. Appendix H describes the third and fourth steps in more detail.

Consideration of Current Menu Planning Approaches

The two major categories of menu planning in current use are food-based menu planning and nutrient-based menu planning.

  1. A food-based approach relies on the use of an approved meal pattern to serve as the basis for menu planning. The pattern specifies that the menu must include minimum amounts of food from selected food groups. The approach does not require the use of computer analysis to ensure that the existing Nutrient Standards are met, but some school food authorities (SFAs) supplement their food-based approach by conducting computerized analysis of some nutrients. Food-based approaches are the most common method of menu planning in current use (USDA/FNS, 2007a).

  2. A nutrient-based approach focuses on nutrients rather than food groups. The menu planner uses a computerized process to ensure that the nutrient content of the menus conforms to the existing Nutrition Standards. The method does not include any food group specifications other than fluid milk. Two evaluations of nutrient-based menu planning (USDA/FNS, 1997, 1998a) revealed challenges related to staff resources, time requirements, and the software used but reported that the approach offered increased flexibility in menu planning. The resulting menus tended to be lower in saturated fat than they had been before the approach was adopted and tended to meet the existing Nutrition Standards for protein, two vitamins, and two minerals. Student participation rates and program costs remained about the same.

Development of a New Meal Planning Approach

A major component of the committee’s task was to make recommendations for menu planning that would improve the consistency of school meals with both the Dietary Guidelines and the Dietary Reference Intakes (DRIs). Although the nutrient-based approach has certain advantages, the committee identified two serious limitations of this menu planning approach:

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