Italian school lunch overview and ideas

Italian School Lunches: A Model for Healthy, Fresh Food for Students



School lunches in Italy are an important part of the food culture and learning experience for students. Unlike in the United States, where processed foods often fill school cafeteria menus, Italy focuses on fresh, nutritious meals made from scratch using local, seasonal ingredients. This article provides an overview of Italian school lunch programs, sample menus, government rules, and ideas for Americans seeking inspiration from the Italian way.

Overview of Current Italian School Lunch Programs

The Italian government aims to offer a canteen service in all public schools from the early years (scuola d’infanzia) to secondary school (scuole medie) – that is the 3 years that follow the primary school.

The current situation is far from meeting that goal. Indeed, not every Italian public school has a canteen, due to limited budgets locally. Agenzia Italia reports that only about one-third of Italy’s 40,160 state schools currently offer lunch; that’s equivalent to just over 13,000 schools. 

Italian school lunches are healthy and well balanced

School Lunches in Italy: Nutrition Requirements Set by the Government

The Italian government, through the Ministry of Health, oversees standards for public school lunches. Key rules include:

Food CategoryConsumption Frequency
Fruit & VegetablesOne portion of fruit and one of vegetables per day
Cereals (pasta, rice, corn, barley)One portion daily
BreadOne portion daily
LegumesOnce or twice weekly
PotatoesMaximum once weekly
MeatsOnce or twice weekly
FishOnce or twice weekly
Eggs1 egg per week
CheesesOnce per week
Cured meatsTwice monthly
One dish food (like pizza and lasagna)Once weekly
Food Guidelines for School Canteens in Italy

It’s clear that fresh fruit, cereals, and bread are the foods being prioritized, which is in line with Italy’s culinary culture. It’s also a great way to keep good nutrition while also keeping the costs down, since rice and pasta have a lower price than meat and fish.

Public School Lunches in Italy Are Not Free

Where available, families pay €4.04 per meal on average, or €80.79 per month. In case you are wondering, here are the regions with the most expensive and least so canteen fees:

Is Eating at the School Canteen Compulsory in Italy?

At least for public schools, there are two options: either have the canteen food or go home and have lunch there. Kids can’t bring their own food to school.

Italian students in public schools are not allowed to consume food brought from home in the cafeteria and school premises. This was stated by the United Sections of the Court of Cassation through judgment No. 20504 deposited on the 30th of July 2019. 

While I fully disagree with this decision, that’s what the current situation looks like. I imagine how that must create serious issues for working parents who want their kids to eat a specific diet, or simply homemade food. Picking up kids from school at lunchtime, going home to have lunch, and taking them back in time to continue their lessons is not practical even for parents who can spare the time, especially when the lunch break lasts an hour or less. 

Italian School Canteen lunch

Sample Italian School Lunch Menus

By now you are probably wondering what a typical Italian school lunch looks like when offered by the school canteen – mensa in Italian.

To give you a good understanding I will share with you sample menus from these different realities:

Let’s have a look at all the tasty menus.

Fano Primary School Winter Menu

For the past three years, Fano has consistently held the top spot in Italy for providing healthy and sustainable school food. The most recent recognition was earned on March 1, 2023, in Rome during the Summit of Healthy and Sustainable Cafeterias. This event evaluates school canteens based on criteria such as quality, dietary balance, variety, use of organic ingredients, and adherence to high standards.

Below I am sharing the menus for two different days spread across four weeks.

Week 1, Monday Menu:

Pasta with tomato sauce
Grated parmesan
Spinach with oil
Fresh fruit

Week 4, Thursday Menu:

Saffron rice
Beef stew
Cooked carrots
Fresh fruit

If you’d like more inspiration, you can have a look at Fano’s full 4-week menu program here.

Other cities recognized for having the best and healthiest school lunches in Italy are Cremona and Parma. Their lunch menus use fresh, seasonal, locally-grown ingredients to make meals from scratch. 

Collegio San Giuseppe, Turin Menu

Collegio San Giuseppe is one of the best public schools in the country, you can see the full list here. It covers all levels of learning from early years to the end of secondary school.

Below I am showing you a sample menu served to the upper secondary school students.

Week 1, Tuesday Menu:

Tagliatelle with meat sauce
Breaded veal cutlets
Sautéed carrots
Seasonal fruit

Week 4, Friday Menu:

Country-style pasta
Breaded sole filet
Green beans with oil
Seasonal fruit

St Louis International School, Milan Menu

Curious to see what kids eat in the school canteen of one of the top 3 private schools in Italy? Let’s see.

Week 1, Monday Menu:

Pasta with zucchini pesto
Boiled eggs
Green beans

Week 2, Friday International Menu:

Lentil soup
Meat kebab
Turkish salad

The menus above are served to primary and middle school students. Secondary level students don’t have a meal prepared but they can eat at the cafeteria located on campus.

As seen in these menus, Italian school lunches emphasize fresh fruits, vegetables, beans, pasta, rice, and simple proteins like eggs or fish. The food is made from scratch at school. Desserts are kept simple and healthy.

Homeschooling in Italy: Here’s What a Typical At-Home Lunch Looks Like

In Italy, homeschooling is allowed from preschool through high school, which means that Italian parents can choose to educate their kids at home instead of sending them to primary and secondary school.

In this case, parents are free to feed their kids a typical homemade lunch. If you are curious to see what that looks like in Italy, you should watch this video of an Italian mum of 2 serving 5 lunches and snacks for her kids. It can be a great source of inspiration for your kids’ at-home or packed school lunches.

In case you are short on time, here’s a summary of what those meals look like:

  1. Vegetable omelet on day 1
  2. Pasta with Italian cheeses on day 2
  3. Risotto on day 3
  4. Vegetable pasta on day 4
  5. Chicken and vegetables on day 5

Again, you can see how grains – especially pasta, take a central role in at home lunches.

Italian School Lunch vs American

Now that you are aware of the type of food Italian kids eat at school, you might understand me when I say that this Quora comment about US school lunches shocked me.

“School lunches in public schools in my state are typically frozen meals or canned goods that are heated right before we eat them.”

From my research, I can see that many States are setting out clear guidelines for school nutrition programs. Here’s an example I found from the State of Connecticut taken from the State’s Official Website:

“The meal patterns require daily and weekly amounts of five food components for lunch (milk, fruits, vegetables, grains, and meat/meat alternates) and three food components for breakfast (milk, fruits, and grains).”

However, after more research, I realized that these rules are not necessarily being put into good practice. Based on my observations, the most fundamental thing is that it’s not just the type of food you serve, whether it’s milk or vegetables, but it’s the quality. For instance, can you really count a sugary milk drink or a processed sandwich meat as healthy? No, you can’t.

Sugary drinks, often served in school lunches, contribute to excessive sugar intake, leading to various health issues such as obesity and dental problems. Processed sandwich meats, on the other hand, are often high in sodium, preservatives, and additives, which may have negative health effects when consumed regularly.

It appears that the average school canteen lunch in the US includes mostly processed food, full of additives and preservatives. I understand the concerns many parents share. If you came here to seek healthy lunch inspiration for your kids, I trust you already had plenty, but let me give you even more ideas.

sandwich with jam is a great mid morning Italian school snack

Italian School Lunch Ideas For You

Although many Italian kids might be eating canteen meals most of the time, there might be times when they have to bring their own food from home, whether it’s because of an outing or a strike. As I write this article, many school canteens in Italy are in fact on strike, meaning that kids went back to school without having their regular canteen meal provided. That means Italian parents are having to prepare their kids’ lunches at home. 

Typical homemade and packed Italian school lunches include:

Italian School Lunch Ideas
Italian School Lunch Ideas

Other great ideas for school lunches come from a survey of the top favorite foods Italians like to eat at the beach. Why not take them to school?

These include:

packed italian school lunch example

Italian School Lunch Menu

Below I have put together an Italian-inspired School lunch menu to pack for your kids, on 6 different days.

Day 1 Menu:

Homemade Italian plum cake for mid-morning break
Italian rice salad
Fresh fruit

Day 2 Menu:

Fruit salad for mid-morning snack
Penne with tomato sauce and parmesan (serve it in an insulated container)
Mixed nuts (if allowed by the school)

Day 3 Menu:

Tiramisu-style yogurt and biscuits cup
Chicken Caprese salad with mozzarella balls, cherry tomatoes, and extra virgin olive oil
Fresh fruit

Day 4 Menu:

Italian bread rusks with butter and jam
Risotto with extra virgin olive oil and parmesan
Fresh fruit

Day 5 Menu:

Yogurt and muesli
Broccoli and parmesan cheese fritters with a leafy salad
Fresh fruit

Day 6 Menu:

Homemade fruit tart
Tomato, pesto, cotto ham and parmesan sandwich
Fruit salad

6 Italian School Lunch Menu
6 Italian School Lunch Menu

Italian-inspired School Lunch Grocery List

If you like the Italian school lunch menu ideas I just gave you, here’s a grocery list you can use to stock up your kitchen so you can make them for your kids and your work-packed lunch.

Greek Yogurt or Regular
Mozzarella cheese – large and small balls
Parmesan cheese
Butter for baking (although you can also use extra virgin olive oil)

Condiments & Italian Pantry Staples
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and pepper
Tomato passata
Basil pesto

Fresh Produce & Meats
Fruit – pears, apples, strawberries, grapes, cherries, melon, etc
Salad leaves – iceberg, rucola, red leaf
Chicken breast or strips

Flour 00
Paneangeli Vanilla Baking Powder Mix
Pasta – penne, fusilli, farfalle, are school-friendly pasta shapes
Arborio rice
Italian rusks called fette biscottate

Snack Food
Jam – strawberry and apricot are Italian favorite flavors
Nuts of your choice
Savoiardi biscuits for healthy tiramisu cup

Italian School Lunch Grocery List
Italian School Lunch Grocery List

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, school meals in Italian elementary schools provide a model for serving children fresh, nutritionally balanced lunches. Unlike American schools that often rely on fast food or processed options, Italian school kitchens prepare a first course of pasta or rice, often followed by a protein-based second course, and vegetable side dishes from scratch on a weekly basis. This ensures that Italian children eating lunch at school receive dishes made with seasonal ingredients that meet national nutritional standards.

While embracing this Italian philosophy of school meals being integral to children’s health and education is ideal, American parents can take matters into their own hands. Whether packing lunches or cooking for homeschooled kids, gaining inspiration from Italian-style lunch menus can lead to better food choices.

When shopping for items like pasta, rice, meats and produce on a weekly basis, parents can recreate tasty yet nutritionally balanced lunches. With a first course, second course, and vegetable side dishes, American children can enjoy fresh, delicious Mediterranean-style lunches.

Though recreating the Italian approach at home is not as impactful as large-scale school food reform, small changes by individual parents to provide less processed, more nutrient-dense lunches can positively influence their children.

Frequently Asked Questions About School Lunch in Italy

What is a typical Italian school lunch?

A typical Italian school lunch consists of a first course like pasta, risotto or soup, a second course featuring a protein such as meat, fish or cheese, and a vegetable side dish. Meals are prepared fresh daily using seasonal, local ingredients per national nutrition standards.

Do Italian kids go home for lunch?

While many schools offer that option, most Italian children do not go home for lunch – they eat in school canteens and cafeterias.

What does high school lunch in Italy look like?

In certain Italian schools, High school lunches resemble primary school meals with a focus on balanced nutrition versus fast food. While in others, students have a cafeteria with different foods to choose from rather then prepared meals.

Does Italy have school 6 days a week?

Yes, Italy has school 5 to 6 days per week as some schools might choose to spread the hours across Monday to Saturday.

Is school in Italy free?

Public school is free in Italy but families pay a subsidized rate for school lunches unless exempt.

Where do Italian students eat lunch?

Most students eat lunch in school cafeterias or lunchrooms.

How much does school lunch cost in Italy?

The cost of school lunch ranges from €2-5 per meal depending on municipality, averaging €80 monthly.

How long is the school lunch break in Italy?

School lunch breaks last 10-20 minutes in the morning for a snack and 30-60 minutes midday for lunch.

Do Italian children eat pizza in school?

Pizza is served maximum once weekly in Italian schools per regulations.

What do Italian kids drink at school?

Students drink water with meals and do not have access to sodas, candy or junk food in school.

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