Hello, healthy school lunches!
Is this a photo of a buffet lunch? Is it party food? Are these nibbles from a recent blogging event? My latest efforts to cook healthy, yummy food for the kids? Believe it or not, this is the kind of food that my kids' schools are going to serve to students!
A couple of years ago I wrote a post lamenting the sad state of hot lunches in our school. Nothing was prepared on site, and almost everything seemed like greasy, salty fast food: cheese quesadillas, burgers, chicken nuggets, mozarella sticks, pizza. There was always a salad and/or bagel-and-cream-cheese alternative, but the salad was the usual bagged iceberg lettuce kind, and the bagel was, well, a bagel.
I wrote the post after I had read Lunch Wars, a book about the state of school lunches across America. The book got me longing for the locally sourced, organic lunches they serve up in Berkeley public schools, and it was actually the first time I thought about running for PTA president so I could try and lobby for healthier lunches. But our tiny K-5 school is just one of many in our city's public school district, and I couldn't even imagine where to start. We're already a pretty affluent, progressive community where everyone seems to buy from Whole Foods or CSAs or farmers' markets, so I figured that someone must already be fighting to get better lunches served in school.
It turns out I was right. This year our school district sent out a notice that all schools would be switching to an online ordering system, and there would be new, healthier options -- including organic and gluten free options -- on the menu! The Student Nutrition Services department invited all parents and students to a Tasting Day so everyone could try out the new dishes and provide feedback. Tasting stations were set up at one of the district's middle schools. Everyone who tried a dish was given a marble, and given an option of dropping it into one of three cups: a Red Cup for This is icky, a Blue Cup for This is so-so, and a Green Cup for I want to scarf this dish right down my throat.
I took 3Po, Jammy and their friend with me to the tasting event, and I was delighted to see that all the tasting stations featured food that you might actually find in a real restaurant, or at home. I was even more delighted to see the three boys going from station to station, tasting all the food and liking most of the dishes!
All 3 boys and I gave top marks to the chicken tikka masala wraps. None of the boys are particularly fond of Indian food, so all of them were surprised to find out that the dish they liked best was Indian food. This is going to make great leverage for the next time Alfie and I are craving Indian food but the kids say they don't like it.
Some of the gluten-free options included potato-crusted fish sticks, broccoli bites, spinach bites and sweet potato bites. My marble went straight into the Green Cup for this one!
I loved the couscous salad, but my kids put their marble in the Red Cup for this one.
I think the Black Bean and Sweet Potato Salad may also be a hard sell, but I also think that it's important to put this kind of food in front of kids' faces and encourage them to try it. If all they see around them is burgers and nuggets, then that's all they'll eat.
The California rolls were another big hit.
Even vegetarians will be able to enjoy sushi, now that avocado rolls are on the menu!
The bean-and-cheese burritos and pepperoni calzones were probably the closest things to kids menu or food court items we saw -- but somehow I doubt if you'll find burritos and calzones prepared with natural, organic ingredients at a food court!
Other new entrees that will be added to the school lunch menu include Annie's Organic Mac-n-Cheese, Amy's Garden Vegetable Lasagna, veggie taco salad, hummus with pretzels and cucumbers, and Thai garlic chicken with brown rice. My mouth is watering already. This is so worth the 25-cent increase in the cost of our school lunch!
Obviously, not all of these dishes will be available every day. And yes, chicken nuggets, burgers and pizza are still on the rotation. But there will be at least one of these new dishes on the menu every day, which means kids who buy school lunches (and kids who are on the free and reduced lunch program) no longer have to eat greasy, breaded food day in and day out. My kids used to prefer my home-packed lunches to school lunches, but now I think I've got some serious competition! Frankly, I couldn't be happier about it.