Friday, April 09, 2010

My soapbox is a lunchbox

One of my pet peeves is school lunch. I make Dagny her lunch 4 out of 5 days a week (she's allowed pizza on Fridays if she has good behaviour all week) because the small Catholic school she attends, while excellent on the academic front, has a truly abysmal lunch program. I've talked with the principal a few times, but she says it all comes down to three things: money, volunteers to man the cafeteria/cooking/serving lines, and what the kids will eat. I'm sure that's the standard response whether you are in public school or private. It's true; getting kids to eat well can be tricky. Paying for it straps the parents. And getting volunteers for anything is nearly impossible.

Enter Jamie Oliver and his glorious, amazing Food Revolution. If you haven't seen his new show, and have previously been turned off by his Food Network programs, I urge you to reconsider and check it out (Friday nights, ABC, check your local listings). What he is attempting to do is truly revolutionary: he is overhauling the school lunch program for a school district in Huntington, WV -- a town that has the current title of the Unhealthiest Place in the US. And not only is he attempting to get the kids to eat real, freshly prepared food, he's also attempting to change the mindset of the community. A community that currently considers french fries a vegetable. A community that didn't even have utensils for the children to use - all the food was "finger food." A community where the Kindergarten kids he visited couldn't identify 90% of the fresh vegetables he showed them -- including tomatoes. A community where the mom of a family he visited -- a family where every member was obese -- admitted that she served fried or fast food for every meal.

Obviously, he's meeting some resistance and I'm sure there are even a fair number of viewers (Hi Mom!) who consider him arrogant and bossy and that the schools have more to worry about than if the kids are eating properly, you know what with drop-out rates, test scores, social problems, etc. But I say let him try! (He attempted the same makeover in the UK and it is a resounding success, with students grades way up, less illness, etc.) At the very least, it will ensure that the kids are getting at least one nutritious, balanced, fresh meal a day. In the best case, families in Huntington will start eating better and eating together and everyone will benefit.

It's a great concept. I hope it works. In the meantime, I'm "homeschooling" my kids when it comes to food, cooking, eating healthy, and making good food choices. I'm lucky that I had parents that thought mealtimes were important. I'm lucky that I am able to afford quality fresh ingredients (I'm sure some people would disagree, I think everyone can do this -- some people will always make bad, uneducated choices and the children certainly do suffer for it. But COME ON, you can't tell me that anyone thinks a box of snack cakes is a better choice than an apple.) And, although creating and packing school lunches can be time consuming, thankless, and frustrating, I'm happy to be able to do it.

My six rules:

1) If you're going to allow snacks, make sure the kids have healthy snack options. Get the processed foods* out of their - and your - life now!
2) Portion control
3) A vegetable and/or fruit of some sort every single night - sometimes this is as easy as iceberg lettuce or mandarin oranges. Sometimes I serve TWO veggies. Sometimes it's just apple slices or carrot sticks. But I do it every night.
4) Buy whole foods whenever possible. My kids know what carrots look like with the greens on; they've seen a whole watermelon; they know that fruit doesn't come from a can; they LOVE the Farmer's Market. (Not that there is ANYTHING wrong with buying a convenient prepared cup of mixed melons and berries. I'm saying do BOTH.)
5) Let your kids help in the kitchen! My sis was amazed when Dagny picked up a whisk like a pro to whip up some hot fudge sauce. (She knows all about ganache, egg washes, and proofing dough.)
6) Make it homemade as much as humanly possible. It's not about convenience -- it's about survival. I want my kids to be able to provide a nutritious homemade meal for themselves, their friends, their future families. I get a real kick when I hear my kids ask "Is this homemade?" when they eat something.

*Full disclosure: Anders is a very picky eater and has a thing about Ritz crackers. I know one day they won't be considered a whole food group at our house, but until then I will buy them. I did however, wean them from processed, sugary breakfast cereals. And they haven't seemed to miss them at all!


teresa-bug said...

I love this guy and what he is doing. I swear I'd quit my job and join his bandwagon if I could. He and his mission is awesome!

Scott Williams said...

You sound like sort of a nazi on this eating thing!