Kids Improve School Lunches

The conventional wisdom is that if you let kids decide, they’d eat nothing but fast food cheeseburgers, french fries and soda. While we know for certain that many kids would make such a choice, that might not be as true as we think. Chef Jaime Oliver has proved in his Food Revolution program that given a choice of good tasting food tha’st good for you, kids will often choose that over the chicken nuggets. The key is to give them good tasting food. That’s where so many school cafeterias fall short.

Do you remember your school cafeteria meals? I remember there was this stale odor that seemed to cover everything. In elementary school, there weren’t a lot of choices. Most ¬†of the time I took my lunch, as did a lot of kids in my neighborhood. But a few of their meals were okay. In junior high, the cafeteria offered more choices, including a la carte fries, burgers and such. This was in addition to the same hot meal offered at all the schools in my district. The choices remained about the same in high school. College dinning was quite a bit better and included a salad bar. I don’t know if the food was actually better or if I had become so accustomed to bad food that I couldn’t tell the difference. In general, hot meals were pretty tasteless. Vegetables were cooked to mushiness. Most meats were mixed with sauce of some kind. Either that or it was fried. The idea seemed to be to get food into us without much regard for nutrition or taste.

But that’s changing. Not only is Chef Oliver proving that cafeteria food doesn’t have to be bad, but now even the kids are seeing that more can be done to make meals nutritious and flavorful. Recently, a nationwide contest called Cooking Up Change challenged high school kids to come up with dishes that were easy to prepare, met federal nutrition guidelines and could be made for around $1, yes, one-dollar, per meal. That sounds like quite a challenge. Could you do it?

Earlier this week, six teams of students from across the country were cooking on Capital Hill, presenting their creations to a panel of judges that included the wives of the Secretaries of Agriculture and Education. And the dishes all seemed to be hits with the government staffers.

So, what kinds of dishes were on offer? How about Caribbean Crunch Salad loaded with fresh fruit and vegetables? Or chicken with orange-infused brown rice? Or North Carolina-style barbecued pulled chicken sandwiches? I’d eat those! And for dessert: yogurt and fruit parfaits. The winning entry was Caribbean-inspired beef rib salad with Moroccan rice and a sweet potato corn bread muffin. Wow! There was never anything like that when I was a kid.

Many of these recipes will be on offer soon at school lunch lines near you. America is waking up to the assault on our health from bad, cheap, processed food. Let’s keep up the effort.