La La How The Life Goes On

Lunch Lady

Posted on: January 13, 2012

I remember the heady days of 1980’s school lunches: chicken rondelets, hoagie sandwiches, tater tots, franks-n-beans, and the ever-mysterious Salisbury steak. All disgusting, all delicious, and nothing my parents would ever consider eating.

I recently volunteered in Bambina’s cafeteria to help implement a recycling program, and let’s just say that it ain’t your mama’s lunch line. The table was a veritable abbondanza (thank you, Mama Celeste) of apples, salads and healthy choices. In the midst of handing out stickers to any kids who recycled and to those with Tupperware, I was seriously wondering how I could sign up for school lunch takeout.

But here’s the rub: that table was so full of healthy choices because none of the kids were choosing them. They took the pizza slice and the chocolate milk and went on their happy way. I mean, a few kids took an apple here or there, but the other items were ignored in droves. One teacher was imploring some boys to take a salad, but she might as well have been asking them to publicly confess a burning love for Justin Bieber: no takers. And lest the parents who send healthy lunches to school think they are superior, please allow me to relay how many times I counseled kids that neither carrots, celery, raisins nor grapes were recyclable. Entire half-portions of lunch boxes were thrown in the trash. Items kept: hot stuff in thermoses (thermii?), crackers, cheese, chips and various “granola” bars. Almost everything else? Trashed. With prejudice. I almost called one of those dumpster diving groups to come over and eat till they bust, so full of nutritious food were the trash cans.

So what’s the solution? I’m not sure. Maybe we give kids longer than 20 minutes from butts-in-seats to line-up-and-leave. That would be a start. Sad to say that I give Bambina lots of “squeezable” foods, simply because she does not have the luxury of time to open a carton and use a spoon. How do we expect our kids to understand the importance of healthy food if we don’t put some value on the time it takes to eat it?

Another solution may be pouring a tall glass of ice cold reality over our heads: if a 7 year old can eat celery from home or a few chips fom her friend’s lunch, which do you imagine she will choose?

Perhaps the key here is making healthy foods interesting to a child’s palate…and in line with their needs from seaon to season. This is not news. I eat kale like its going out of style, but it would have taken a rupture in the time-space continuum to get me to even try it as a kid. So that may be the disconnect. Add to that the reality that kids come in from recess on a cold wintry day and grab…an apple and a salad with their chicken nuggets? Not likely. Would you? You’d want something warming, something comfort foody…and a cold apple with dry ass raisins ain’t it.

The solution eludes me, but the discussion makes me nostalgic for the rectangular slabs of Ellio’s pizza with that one solitary pepperoni in the middle. Now THAT was good eatin’.

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1 Response to "Lunch Lady"

When I was in my early 20s, I worked in two places where I ate with kids. One was an outdoor education facility where kids spent an entire week with their whole grade group from school. The other was a summer camp where kids spent one to two week sessions, and sometimes multiple sessions. At each of these places, the kids ate almost everything. What made the difference? Adults at each table – just like home.

When I was teaching, I was shocked at what a free-for-all mayhem lunchtime is. It’s an environment no one would really want to eat in – rushed, noisy, chaotic, competitive, out of control. Stress like that makes even me reach for just the pizza – it’s comfort food all the way. There is also a psychological element that’s about belonging – some foods are “cool” and some are decidedly not, as anyone who brought her mom’s whole-wheat oat-and-carob-chip cookies can tell you. Pizza is cool.

What an adult at the table – and enough time – can do is model and manage the environment so that the messages about food change. The outdoor education program, for instance, was brilliant in that mealtimes were embedded right into the curriculum. For one thing, we talked about food waste and the impact of that. At the end of every meal we gathered and actually weighed all the wasted food, creating a competition with ourselves to reduce the amount meal by meal. The kids were up to the challenge. What that meant at the table was that we encouraged everyone to start with smaller portions, because your eyes are bigger than your stomach, and take more at seconds only if they wanted. There were veggies at every meal, and we had a standard called the “no thank you helping.” This meant that even if you thought you didn’t like the veggie, you had to take it onto your plate – at least 8 peas, or 2 broccoli florets, or whatever we determined it was that night. As the adults, we created conversation that involved every kid, and watched who ate what and encouraged those who needed it. The table atmosphere was civilized, and the kids ate…everything. Absolutely everything. Routinely, the parent chaperones would tell us they couldn’t believe their kids ate so well here because they were so picky at home.

The other thing was snacks – we had fresh fruit available between meals, and that was it. Meal opportunities came when they came, according to the clock, so you ate because you were hungry. It seems to me that we’re in a really over-snacked culture today. Seems like people think they can’t take the kids on a 45-minute drive without a bag of graham crackers or fruit roll-ups. Sweets are in the classrooms – as rewards, even, not just for parties, and as part of instruction – and at every afterschool activity. Every time kids turn around they’re offered a snack, and not always a healthy one.

These things make all the difference in the world. By giving kids abundant choices, but with no context, guidance, routines or parameters, we’re not really encouraging them to eat as well as they should. Eating and mealtimes are more than just choices – they’re where we learn to eat, pick up attitudes about eating, and put food into a complete context. They are also where adults model normal, healthy eating for kids and kids learn by watching the adults and each other. Kids eating on their own only have each other, and the relative freedom can be too intoxicating. They will create their own context for eating, and that’s one where the id rules and no one is there to bring in any other considerations or support any other choices.

Since the two experiences I’ve had where eating with kids was a pleasure and the kids ate everything, and well, I’ve just been all the more saddened to see what passes for mealtime at schools.

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