Making Healthy School Lunches
(That Kids Will Actually Eat!)
by Emily Powell
When you were a little kid, how often did you jump for joy at the sight of steamed broccoli or sliced bell peppers on your school lunch tray? For most adolescents, the answer is never. Vegetables are the enemy. Spinach and broccoli and corn are things to induce pure disgust: those are the piles you push as far to the edge of the tray as possible, in order to prevent cross-contamination with your beloved chicken nuggets. Oh, how the times do change.
Or do they? Here we are, cultivating, nurturing and pouring our hearts into the fertile soils of our gardens so that they may bless us with the exact vibrant beauties we so desperately tried to avoid in elementary school, middle school, and even high school. We, as adults, now understand the ecological and physiological benefits of these veggies, but we have become detached from the persevering truth: little kids still don’t like them. Yet, in isolation from this reality, we have recently raised our schools’ lunch standards, including an increased requirement for offering more servings of vegetables and fruits at meals. A wonderful advancement in the improvement of nutrition awareness and sustainable, real-food diets, evident in the increase of the average amount of produce kids are taking from the lunch line from 0.69 cups to 0.89 cups (see the New York Times link at the bottom of this article). Unfortunately, since the requirements have been raised, kids throw away fruit/veggies at a rate that is 56% higher than it used to be (see the NYT article again). Bottom line, these efforts are having the reverse effect than we intended, and they aren’t eating more veggies just because we’re handing them out (a moment of silence for the thousands of pounds of perfectly good peas and carrots tossed into cafeteria trash cans every day). So it remains: how can we make the improvement of our school lunch standards worthwhile by preventing the waste of these hard-earned vegetable servings?
In a few studies discussed in the wonderful online journal Grist, the following discouraging trends have appeared: less students are taking school lunches, and those that do are eating even less vegetables than they were before the standard improvements. But these trends aren’t universal, nor do they mean we’ve failed at making our kids healthy. We’ve made a valiant attempt at weaning our youth from the diets of saturated fat, processed additives, and sodium that are all too common and have only been contributing to America’s nation-wide struggle with health. Now, the challenge remains to nurture a shift in cafeteria norms and preferences, which might come equally from the home as well as the classroom.
Since kids at times derive their preferences and habits based on what they are offered at home, a deeper level of instilment is necessary in order to get them to eat veggies at lunchtime. Parents must be willing to enforce habits through buying and preparing vegetables on a regular basis. But before that, parents must have the means to buy and prepare vegetables. Thus, fresh produce must be available to these parents at an affordable price, and they must be willing to endorse a healthy lifestyle.
Additionally, other solutions are proposed to improve the rate of produce consumption – including, but not limited to, innocently-motivated manipulation of child psychology. Let me explain:
Cutting foods into bite-size pieces, recognizing preference towards certain fruits or vegetables, labeling to encourage familiarity, taste-testing in small quantities, and offering a low-calorie dip or spread to go along with veggies are options that can help open up the elementary-age mind. A fifth grader might not want steamed broccoli, but they’d be more inclined to eat mini “trees” served with lowfat ranch dressing.
Now, consider the copious trash bins full of perfectly-compostable produce that are going to waste. Since we can’t completely prevent food waste – and since giving kids the choice to take only quantities of food they want would result in little to no fruits/vegetables consumed – large amounts of food going to waste is going to continue to be a thing. How wonderful would it be for you, with your large urban farm with vast needs for organic nutrients, to get your hands on some of this rubbish? What if schools could get kids to put food scraps in one trash bin and everything else in the other? This kind of problem-solving would be easier to implement at schools that host and cultivate their own community gardens – little children might be more inclined to follow directions and separate their food waste into a composting bin if they recognized the connection between the nutrients they don’t eat and the nutrients their plants need. With this kind of closed loop, we might be able to create a small food system even within an individual public school. Closed loops are good for us and for the earth and for future generations.
Just food for thought.
New York Times – “Children Tossing School Lunch Fruits and Vegetables”
Grist.org – “Kids toss out fruits and veggies from school lunches, researchers find”
Emily Powell’s exuberant passion for sustainability and sustainable nutrition stems from her everlasting love for the outdoors, people, dirt, and broccoli. As an undergraduate in the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, Emily is working towards becoming a spokesperson for everyday sustainable food and lifestyle choices, including decisions on what foods you buy, where you buy them, and how you make the most of foods’ energy. Leveraging communication through writing, Emily has been recognized in competitions such as the DuPont Challenge and the Apprentice Ecologist Initiative for her essays on sustainability issues and initiatives, including Honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder and community gardens in elementary schools. Emily aspires to utilize relationships with other academic disciplines to plant the seeds of sustainability and nutrition principles in the young adults of her generation. She plans to earn her Registered Dietician credential and work either on the community or personalized sustainable nutrition level.
Never (and I mean never) ask your children to eat anything new! Settle for a taste. Or a touch. Or maybe even just a sniff. When it comes to teaching kids to enjoy new foods, pressure is your enemy. And—at least from our kid’s perspective—being expected to eat something they’ve never tasted before is a lot of pressure.
The shift from eating to tasting may not seem like a big deal. Most parents think that’s what they’re doing when they say to their kids, “Just taste it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it.” But if you hear this statement from your child’s perspective—“If you do like it, you will have to eat it”—it’s easier to see why some kids balk. Especially if you introduce new foods the way most parents do, by putting a big heap on the plate at dinner. What if your child doesn’t want to eat it, or even thinks he might not want to eat it? The safest course of action is to not even taste it.