Switching to more nutritional school lunchesBy Juliya Amarasinghe Davis
School lunches have long been under scrutiny for their lack of nutrition. While there is a growing concern for the recent rise in childhood obesity and the various health conditions that accompany it, little has actually been done in changing what is being served in the lunch line. Parish Day School of Eastern Shore Chapel decided that this concern would not just merely be a topic of discussion, and began taking steps to restructure their entire menu.
Obstacles in serving nutritious meals can seem overwhelming. How does a non-proﬁt faith-based preschool tackle the challenges that national associations struggle to address? First and foremost, we asked the parents what they would like to see their children being served. As the newly appointed kitchen manager, I was both ambitious enough and eager enough to see what we could accomplish. Could we make the parents happy while remaining cost effective and keeping within nutritional guidelines as well as having regard for our nut allergies?
Parent requests varied from pleas for more fresh fruits and vegetables versus canned to a desire to eliminate processed foods from the menu. Other concerns were eliminating trans fat, MSG, high fructose corn syrup, sodium and sugar. Menu suggestions from parents included whole grain breads, bean recipes, organic dairy products and homemade snack mufﬁns. I wanted to be able to incorporate all of their suggestions and follow the national nutrition guidelines and stay within budget.
My ﬁrst thought was that by making foods from scratch, I would be able to keep menu items peanut free as well as keep the sodium and fat content lower. Raw ingredients would also bring the cost down. Organic dairy items were, unfortunately, not budget friendly. When milk is a required everyday lunch beverage and we consume about a gallon a day, the budget would simply not accommodate organic milk. Fresh fruits and vegetables were doable as was substituting whole grain for white bread. Completely eliminating any additives is a process that continues.
I began researching recipes for whole grain breads and dishes that would easily sneak in spinach or other vegetables without making it too obvious. Hand ﬁlled pasta shells with low-fat ricotta and spinach with marinara would replace previous menu items such as frozen processed cheese-ﬁlled tortellini. Homemade wheat pizza crust topped with pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese would replace prepackaged frozen pizza squares. Sliced apples and oranges would be served versus canned fruits in calorie-ridden syrups.
A parent handed me a granola bar recipe that incorporated healthy ingredients but also did not contain “traces of nuts”. I used different cereals to make our own trail mixes. The menu began to emerge with the new snacks and entrees. Worry about too much juice consumption in a day from parents, while knowing that social servicesʼ guidelines warrant a snack that consists of items from two different food groups brought about a change in our afternoon snack. Instead of serving crackers and juice, afternoon snack would be served with water and a snack such as cheese and crackers or pretzels and fresh pear slices. Our biggest concern now became the audience- how would these new menu items go over with the children?
The answer is… surprisingly well. Overall, the children are not eating any more or less than they had been when the menu was full of processed fattening, sodium-ridden and less nutritious options. The granola bars are a school favorite and the pizza tastes just as yummy as any pizza. Water versus juice in the afternoon seems to go down just as smoothly with snack.
There have been meals that some or even the majority of the children did not like but I try to pair new foods with familiar favorites. We know that a toddlerʼs stomach is about the size of his ﬁst. With that in mind, when the lunch menu consists of lentil stew, grilled cheese, romaine salad and sliced grapes, we can rest assured that no one is going hungry if he didnʼt like the lentil stew because he ate a half of a grilled cheese, romaine salad and some grapes. We also know that new experiences are often met with hesitation and it can take many times of trying new foods before we acquire a taste for them. So, it was a truly rewarding experience to observe that the second time lentil stew was on the lunch menu, a few more children tried it and decided that they liked it.
Another astounding outcome on the menu restructuring is the effect that it has had on the budget. With careful attention to sales and having the menu sometimes read “fresh fruit” as opposed to a speciﬁc fruit, I have purchased multiple packs of chicken breasts when they are on sale for $1.99 per pound and am able to use whatever fresh fruits are on sale for the week as a menu option. The new menu has actually generated ﬁnancial savings on the food budget.
In these economic times, and with food prices climbing, this was a quite surprising and very welcome treat. We at Parish Day School have accomplished what we set out for- more nutritious, affordable and healthier meals for our young children. My only lingering thoughts now are, what is the rest of the world waiting for?