Why the Healthy School Lunch Program is REALLY in Trouble

school lunch2I read an interesting article in the Washington Post a few months ago titled “Why the healthy school lunch program is in trouble” (August 26, 2015). In case you have not heard, the healthy lunches our First Lady Michelle Obama has nobly championed are not going over so well with the lab rats, err, youngsters.

I’ve been meaning to comment on this for a while, but I have been dealing with my own picky eating, tantrum-throwing toddler lately (among other important life changes, like cooking up baby #2) and this has just been sitting in the back of my mind to ruminate for the last few months.

The Washington Post article basically describes what all of us who have children already know: unlike those delightfully unrealistic Hidden Valley Ranch commercials, kids don’t generally gobble down their vegetables, even when smothered in ranch dressing.

However, despite the pessimistic and, let’s face it, extremely helpless attitude of the healthy lunch program’s critics, I know from  personal experience that getting children to eat fruits and vegetable is NOT an exercise in futility. Rather, I have on several occasions now watched my toddler’s face literally light up at the sight of a favorite vegetable on her plate. Sure, she goes through picky periods (like the last few weeks, when she doesn’t want to eat AT ALL), but overall she is a pretty darned good eater. Yes, professional nutrition experts, it can be done. Michelle Obama is not a crazy nutrition fascist. However, getting children to actually eat their fruits and vegetables does take a little bit of skill and, shall I say, effort.

I have found over the last few years with my daughter that this effort involves taking the time to LOVE your food. I mean, really, give it some love people. Stop simply nuking a pile of plain green beans in the microwave and actually take the time to cook them! I’m sure Jamie Oliver, arguably the king of revolutionizing school food, would agree that plain green beans are not going to get any child excited about vegetables. Now, I am not advocating for making school lunches into some silly game where all of the food includes intricate smiley faces and animal shapes. I actually find that to be kind of creepy. What I am talking about is adding, you know, flavor. Crazy concept, I know, but it seems to help my daughter (and husband!) enjoy fruits and vegetables, so maybe it will work for you, too.

I am a firm believer that there is no reason any of us should be eating all of our vegetables straight out of the ground when we have SO MANY other ways to flavor our food! Why are we simply throwing plain produce onto children’s plates? Even the teenager organizing the graphic t-shirt display at American Eagle knows presentation is key. This video posted recently to Yahoo shows that adults know this food is terrible, too. And let’s not even get started on flavor. In my opinion, simply throwing a plain, mushy, pile of vegetables or that anemic iceberg lettuce bagged salad onto a child’s lunch tray is lazy and unappetizing. Since when did the school cafeteria stop being a cafeteria?

Take a quick look at what other countries cook their students for lunch. Notice that the United States is the only country that a.) doesn’t show any cooked food (except perhaps Norway, since I could not tell what type of sandwich they were serving), and b.) includes junk food in their lunches. I am pretty positive there are people in this country who know better. Seriously, America, if France can do it, so can we!

Here are four tips I, a mere mortal (not even a real chef), mother came up with off the top of my silly little head to help out those poor cafeterias:

  • Fire your lunch ladies and hire real cooks, or send the cafeteria workers you do have to cooking classes
  • Get rid of your microwaves and use your ovens, pots and pans, dishes, silverware, etc.
  • Buy some cookbooks and stock your shelves with flavor-enhancing herbs, spices, chicken broth, mustard–dear God, anything!
  • Find a way to extend the lunch period so everyone isn’t so rushed that their primitive brains are primed to consume any high-fat, high-calorie food they can get their hands on

Would all of this cost more? Yes. But, really, what is the cost of all of the food you are throwing away? What is the cost of sending poorly nourished, hungry kids back to class? What is the healthcare cost of raising overweight and malnourished children? I think something this important is worth the cost. It’s at least worth a try!

So, I am actually getting to a good part here people… for the next couple of months I am going to try my best to post about kid-friendly food that is delicious AND nutritious.

Just as a disclaimer, I am not a nutrition expert. Nope! Crazy that I have so many nutrition opinions and not one degree. But, alas, I am just a regular lady. However, I have gotten my two-year-old to happily eat fruits and vegetables on many occasions, so I feel like I have some pretty good on-the-job training.

To start, my little crusade here are 30 recipe ideas, full of fruits and vegetables, that I think are a heck of a lot tastier than the pitiful, flavorless mounds of mush the Washington Post highlighted in its article. Who knows, maybe some of these would even get eaten. These include a host of dishes from a lot of fellow bloggers and chefs who are much wiser and more talented than I am.

(Please note that I would have loved to include the photos of each dish, but since they are not my property, I didn’t feel like it would be right to include them. [I would be happy to receive any etiquette advice from other, more seasoned bloggers on this!] So, I have only included photos that I have taken.)

Lunch ladies, you are welcome:

30 Fruit- and Vegetable-laden Recipes that Put School Lunches to Shame:

1.) Cucumber Salad: one of my favorite ways to eat a cucumber (though cucumbers are actually one of the vegetables I will eat completely plain!) (recipe at The Garden Grazer)

2.) Pumpkin Ravioli: with brown butter sauce and pecans (recipe at Julia’s Album)

3.) Hearty Italian Minestrone: the “garbage salad” of soups, at least mine is (this one is mine, recipe at Forever Feeding)Minestrone Close Up

4.) Cabbage Salad: with spicy peanut dressing (recipe at The Scaling Back Blog)

5.) Lemon Orzo with Asparagus: doesn’t orzo just seem like it was made to house vegetables? (recipe at Jo Cooks)

6.) Baked Buffalo Cauliflower Bites: “buffalo” is like the Pied Piper of food flavors–children will come running (recipe at Persnickety Plates)

7.) Vegetable Pizza: sure this “pizza” includes a hearty helping of cream cheese, but it also creates lovers of broccoli and bell peppers wherever it goes, so it’s alright in my book (this one is mine, recipe at Forever Feeding)Vegetable pizza

8.) Lemon-Walnut Green Beans: now don’t THESE green beans sound so much tastier than what you saw in the WSJ article?  (recipe at Diet.com)

9.) Balsamic Brussels Sprouts: I’ve had a version of these at Michael Symon’s Lolita restaurant in Cleveland and they completely changed the way I feel about Brussels sprouts (original recipe by Ina Garten, found at Alexandra’s Kitchen)

10.) Turkey, Bean, and Spinach Soup: this reminds me of a funky Thanksgiving recipe (recipe by Rachel Cooks)

11.) Baked Zucchini Sticks: with sweet onion dip (recipe on King Arthur Flour website)

12.) Pico de Gallo: this fresh and flavorful dish can be used as a dip, a topping for meat, or as a mix-in for a number of sides (this one is mine, recipe on Forever Feeding)
Pico de Gallo13.) Green Beans with Peanut Sauce: that peanut sauce sounds like it would taste pretty good on chicken too! (Recipe at Rasa Malaysia)

14.) Garlic Parmesan Roasted Broccoli: we make something similar at home with Parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs (recipe at Damn Delicious)

15.) Roasted Parmesan Sweet Potatoes: I love when anyone makes sweet potatoes savory (recipe by Teenie Cakes)

16.) Pepper Steak: now here is a complete meal, just add brown rice! (this one is mine, recipe at Forever Feeding)Pepper Steak 5

17.) Spinach Macaroni and Cheese: you can basically add any vegetable to macaroni and cheese and children will still come running. Sure, they may pick out the veggies the first few times, but they will eventually give up their futile attempts and just spoon it down their gullets. Trust me. (recipe on Food.com , by member Lori Mama)

18.) Asian Cole Slaw: a wonderful side for an Asian-inspired chicken or fish dish  (recipe by Passion Foodie)

19.) Slow Cooker Quinoa, Chicken and Kale Soup: I’m not sure they allow slow cooker’s in school cafeterias, but you could probably use a pot… (recipe at Cooking Classy)

20.) Rigatoni with Chorizo, Tomatoes, and Spinach: I feel like anytime you can get someone to voluntarily eat spinach, you can call that a success.  (This one is mine, recipe at Forever Feeding)IMG_8942B - Copy

21.) Eggplant and Zucchini Gratin: Anything with the word “gratin” in it is a winner in my book. Original recipe by the eternal French cooking queen, Julia Child. recipe at Skinny Ms.)

22.) Kale Salad: with Meyer lemon vinaigrette (recipe at Damn Delicious)

23.) Pasta Primavera: recipes for this dish abound, but I think this recipe look yummy (recipe at Skinny Mom)

24.) Rainbow Chicken Salad: with almond honey mustard dressing (recipe at Pinch of Yum)

25.) Butternut Squash Ravioli: with brown butter sauce (this one is on QVC’s website, recipe by David Venable)

26.) Confetti Pasta Salad: a hearty helping of peppers and cucumbers hidden within flavorful pasta, feta, and Italian dressing (this one is mine, recipe at Forever Feeding)IMG_9025

27.) Candied Pecan, Craisin, Feta Salad: with creamy balsamic vinaigrette dressing (recipe at Chef in Training)

28.) Broccoli & Bacon Salad: This might get even ME to eat broccoli! (recipe at Cook and Craft Me Crazy)

29.) Smoky Tomato, Roasted Red Pepper & Arugula Pasta (recipe at Tasty Kitchen, member BakeYourDay)

30.) Succotash: with bacon and vinegar, tell me of a better way to get kids to eat Lima beans (recipe at Happier Than a Pig in Mud)

In Conclusion:

As I said, for the next few months, I am going to try my best to post about kid-friendly meals I have made for my own family. I may even try a lot of the recipes on this list. Stay tuned!

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