How often do we hear that kids don’t eat their vegetables?
It’s been a classic American icon since the advent of television, I’m guessing: the child sitting at the table, staring down the pile of spinach mush or Brussels sprouts on their plate, refusing to eat their vegetables and yet not allowed to leave the table until they do.
The trend continues in our public schools all across the nation, as legions of canned green beans, over-cooked broccoli and mixed vegetables go careening off trays into 50-gallon garbage cans, without passing Go and without touching the taste buds of our youngest citizens.
As Sarah Wu shares in Fed Up with Lunch, it’s the chocolate milk and Icee pops – which, to our mutual horror, count as a fruit – that go down the hatch first, and much of the rest goes into the trash.
If anything else is consumed, I guarantee it’s the main course, which can often be eaten with one’s hands, and the fried potato side, dressed up differently each day as either French fries, hash browns, or some other derivative of “fried” and “potatoes.” Because really – what 6-to-10-year-old child has time to use a utensil if they don’t have to? (Case in point: the last time we had salmon, homemade French fries, and steamed broccoli at the Kimball house, my 6-year-old boy’s fork went untouched. We had a talk about that…) (top photo source)
Step One: Removing the “Vegetable Side Dish”
You read that right.
My plan to get kids to eat more vegetables at school is to take them out of their little compartment on the tray.
While reading through the school lunch menu at my son’s school, which is, I guarantee, better than some, I figured out the vegetable problem.
Why aren’t kids getting enough vegetables at lunch? It’s because they’re lonely. (The vegetables, not the kids.)
The veggies seem to be served exclusively in one of three ways: as tomato sauce, as potatoes, or by themselves. What child is going to use their lousy 15 minutes to eat to focus on limp, lukewarm, canned green beans or soggy broccoli when it’s next to a hamburger or slice of pizza? Nobody eats a plain old vegetable side dish. Even many adults will leave a pile of canned mixed vegetables on the plate, especially if the veggies aren’t seasoned in any particular way or they have a limited amount of time to eat.
I can solve the vegetable problem with one change: put veggies in the main course. Quit separating all the foods so that the main course is left with only meat and grains (which are almost always gluten-containing grains; more on that below).
I realize that having clear demarcations between food groups makes it easier for the USDA to evaluate the lunches to make sure they fit the standards: a hunk of meat, a bun or piece of bread (usually both; two servings of grains are stupidly required), a pile of veggies, the milk, and a fruit.
This is a national program, the school lunch thing, and I’m sure the USDA nutritionists are capable of figuring out how many ounces of chicken-vegetable stir fry would be needed to equal “one serving” of vegetables. If not, they don’t deserve their jobs.
Think of all the ways you eat vegetables during the day: it’s likely that as an adult, you might have a nightly salad with veggies, maybe some raw veggies with dip at lunch, and perhaps you enjoy your vegetable side dish with dinner – perhaps you season it nicely or add some fresh Parmesan cheese, too.
At our house, the vegetables definitely go down that way, but to get five-a-day without incorporating veggies into the main course would be impossible. We eats a great deal of soup, put orange veggies into our morning pancakes, have green smoothies for a snack, and put vegetables into burritos, casseroles, and even scrambled eggs. If not for that, I guarantee no one in our family would eat vegetables for more than one meal a day every day.
Veggies are tough – I admit that they’re not even all that prevalent in my eBook, Healthy Snacks to Go, although some of the new recipes include vegetables. That’s why it’s important that the meals in The Everything Beans Book DO include lots of veggies, and I figure out how to send some of them for lunch.
I also send carrot sticks and cucumber slices with homemade ranch dressing or guacamole for dipping with my first grader rather regularly. Even though he has a luxurious half hour for lunch – he still says he doesn’t have enough time – and guess what is most likely to remain in the lunchbox upon its arrival back on my counter?
It’s not that he doesn’t like them. The boy will take five carrot sticks and 3 cukes at dinner and consume every last bite. I think they just take too long to chew at lunch, and he happens to leave them for last and then wants to get outside and play when that time comes.
On the days I decide to skip them because I know he probably won’t get to them anyway, I’m glad no one makes him eat school lunch instead.
Did you see the story a few weeks ago in the news about the 4-year-old whose lunch consisting of a turkey-and-cheese sandwich, apple juice, a banana and potato chips was deemed by a visiting state official to be “not nutritious” according to USDA guidelines? They gave her the school lunch instead, and she ate three chicken nuggets.
‘Cause that’s so very nutritious, balanced, and wholesome.
You bet mom was surprised when she brought her entire lunch home along with a note warning that they may have to pay for cafeteria fees if it continued to happen!
Mom explains that her girl is a picky eater (what 4-year-old isn’t?) and that she serves vegetables at home so she can watch to make sure they get eaten. Case in point: the green beans on the lunch tray went into the garbage. Duh.
This tangent brings me back around to my original point: serve wholesome main courses that incorporate the vegetables if you really want students to eat the vegetables, not just stare at them on the plates. Any guideline that is simply there to become a hoop through which to jump isn’t helping our nation’s kids get healthier, nor is it improving the school lunch program.
It’s just making the trays look balanced when they’re served.
Might as well make sure the tests look good when they’re administered, but who cares about the actual performance of the kids taking them. That would save lots of government money – just don’t score the tests, but make sure they’re balanced.
Who cares what kids eat as long as the right foods are on the tray?
Step Two: Getting into the Mind of the Child
I’m no idealist. I understand that no matter where the vegetables go on the trays, many kids still won’t touch them. I’ve watched Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution shows. Kids are entrenched in their hamburger/pizza/French fry routines, and they don’t like change.
But if we never present them with real food and only offer options that can be found in a fast food restaurant and on dastardly children’s menus, we sell them short. When kids are offered wholesome foods with no other competition on the plate, they quite often choose to taste and ultimately enjoy the healthful choices.
Common advice for parents of young children is to get them in the kitchen helping with food preparation. It’s said, accurately so, that when a child is invested in the food – when he or she has a chance to grow, purchase, or prepare the meal – they’re more likely to taste, eat, and enjoy the final product.
Although we can’t get all the kids into the cafeteria kitchen, I think a similar end could be attained by getting kids engaged with their food in general. Kids should take a critical look at the school lunch menu, and this could be done as early as first grade (why not kindergarten too?).
As a teacher by training, here’s what I would do to promote school lunch awareness in the classroom:
- Divide children into four groups.
- Assign each group something to look for in the school lunch menu: green vegetables, orange vegetables, wheat, and potatoes.
- Pass out a copy of the lunch menu and a red marker and ask each group to circle the days on which their item shows up.
- As a class, discuss how often we eat wheat. (In both school lunch menus I’ve done this with, approximately 3-4 days per month did not include wheat in some way.) Brainstorm other grains that would help variety.
- With older grades, you bet I’d delve into the subject of the increasing gluten intolerance in our country.
- Perhaps by second or third grade, I would also separate whole grains and white flour and talk about how each works in the body.
- As a class, compare orange and green veggies with potatoes. Discuss how the potatoes are prepared (often fried).
- With older grades, compare nutritional information on the veggies to demonstrate that potatoes aren’t always the optimal choice for top nutrition.
- With younger grades, discuss “eating a rainbow” and why it’s important to have different colored fruits and vegetables.
I would absolutely bring in varied fruits and veggies for a taste test. I would brainstorm with the children about their favorite ways to eat vegetables (and share it with the district food services). I would talk often about how important a balanced diet is, incorporating many different kinds of foods.
Would these two simple steps actually fix school lunch?
Sorry I misled you by titling the post so brazenly.
There’s still way too many grains, in my opinion, sugared up chocolate milk in many schools, and the Icees would have to go.
I do think that it would be a HUGE step in the right direction, though, much like Chicago Public Schools choosing to serve 1.2 million pounds of chicken raised on Amish farms without antibiotics to their schoolchildren (about 60% of the chicken served).
What Can I Really Do?
I’m not a schoolteacher (anymore), an administrator, or a government official. I feel out of control of the school lunch menu. I was able to make one small change in the flow of school waste and am beginning to advocate for a better juice policy within the classrooms, and I’m hopeful that with time, building trust in the schools, and a little pluck, I can share more ideas in our district (and then – the worrrrrrrrrrld! Mwah ha ha haha!).
Why not have the teachers and administrators do the same exercise, with a complete lesson on the over-prevalence of gluten in our country, for starters?
Actually, I’m going to start with Sarah Wu’s recommendations in the end of her book, Fed Up With Lunch: someday soon, I’ll eat lunch with the kids. I’ll observe. I’ll ask questions. And I’ll start to formulate a plan.
Will I be taking my group lunch menu project into every classroom at my son’s elementary school? Maybe, maybe not. But I can tell you, in our time there, I hope to be an agent of positive change, from the Styrofoam trays the lunch is served on (there’s got to be a better way to do that) to the excess of gluten and absence of vegetables entering kids’ mouths.
What do you wish you could do in your school district to improve what kids eat?
I know, I know…many of you choose to homeschool, and being totally in charge of what your kids eat is awesome. However, the fact remains that in your “village” where everyone should be responsible for the welfare of our nation’s kids, those at school are eating a lot of junk. What can you do about it?
A Quick Thank You
Each month, KS is supported by a handful of quality small businesses who place a little ad in my sidebar. For those of you reading only by RSS or email, I always include a quick mention of each of them within a post. Next week is going to be consumed by 3rd blogoversary celebrations with NINE different giveaway posts – you’ll get to review some of my favorite products and meet some new ones! – so before that all gets going I need to make sure I thank two remaining sponsors this month:
Bare Fruit Snacks is a new sponsor after I fell in love with their organic apple chips – the kind of food so good my 3yo begs for them like they’re candy. For real. They’ve caused temper tantrums when she can’t have seconds. (*not guaranteed to have the same effect in your home…)
Right now, Bare Fruit is running a fun campaign to form a bigger Facebook community – if you go to their page, you can sign up to win a trip to the Olympic Summer Games, and if you’re a KS reader, BFS will give you an extra $500 spending money, cash in your pocket!
Not interested in the Olympics? You can also find coupons and online ordering information in the left sidebar of the page, and watch for Bare Fruit at Costco, Whole Foods, and local health food stores.
Plan to Eat has been a longtime sponsor for whom I’ve very thankful. Many readers use the powerful meal planning software to organize their nightly dinners, keep a recipe book, and even manage their shopping lists and pantry right from their phone or tablet. Check out the 30-day free trial HERE.