Should children’s palates drive the lunch menu?

Welcome to The Lunch Tray!    To learn more about me and this blog, please check out my “About” page.

For my very first post, I’ll start with a topic about which I — and maybe you?  – have some pretty strong opinions:  letting children’s palates guide the menu options for school lunch.

What am I talking about?   According to my beloved school lunch guru, Janet Poppendieck, back in the 1970’s one of the big issues surrounding school lunch was waste.  (That’s still a big issue, of course.  See, e.g., the disturbing photos of unopened, discarded milk from the First Class Breakfast program on Lisa Murray’s site here.) Accordingly, rather than force children to take the whole meal and throw out much of it, in 1975, Congress passed an amendment to the School Lunch Act allowing high schools to still receive federal reimbursement for meals so long as students selected at least three out of five options served, including milk.   Eventually this idea of “offer vs. serve” was expanded so that today it applies to the vast majority of school meals served at all grade levels.

According to Poppendieck and her  sources, “offer vs. serve” marked the dawning of a new era in which school lunch service began to be viewed more as a business:  if children chose only three of the five offerings, schools received the same federal reimbursement at a lower cost, hence more profit.   Suddenly more choices and variety were offered and children began to be seen as customers to be pleased, rather than fortunate recipients of the school food.   Not surprisingly, then, this period also marked the beginning of child-centric offerings that mimicked (or really were) fast food.

Fast forward to 2010.  If you put ten hungry toddlers in a room and asked them to plan a school lunch menu, you’d get pretty much exactly what was served at HISD one week this month:  chicken nuggets/PBJ; chicken tenders/cheeseburger; beef tacos/beef burrito; pasta with meat sauce/pepperoni pizza; chicken fried steak fingers/fish sticks.

I have nothing against these foods per se.  (See my “About” page wherein I confess an unhealthy love for a certain pizza). And HISD will tell you that what looks like fast food really isn’t — the pizza has low fat cheese or the hamburger bun may be made from whole wheat flour.

I applaud any measures that improve the nutritional content of our children’s school lunches, but here’s my problem:  meals served in our school cafeterias are as much a “teaching moment” as what happens in the classroom.  So when a child walks into a lunch room and sees the aforementioned array of fast food-like items, he or she doesn’t have any idea that they’re somehow nutritionally superior to what’s offered at the Pizza Hut or McDonald’s down the street (except for the fact that maybe they don’t taste as good).

What he or she learns instead is that pizza, hamburgers and chicken nuggets must be perfectly acceptable lunch options to be consumed on a daily basis – or why else would the school serve them? This is especially true of our most vulnerable children who are dependent upon HISD for one or two meals a day and don’t have anyone in their homes who are modeling more healthful eating.  Are we surprised, then, when these same children go on to make poor eating choices in later life, compromising their own health?   (BTW, I don’t lay the problem entirely at HISD’s doorstep.   The prevalence of children’s menus at restaurants teaches exactly the same thing to children.   For an interesting critique of that phenomenon, see this article from yesterday’s New York Times.)

On the other hand, there may be parents out there who think there’s nothing wrong with giving kids what they want.   Or you may believe strongly that children are simply going to reject anything on a school lunch tray that’s unfamiliar to them – beans and rice, or a veggie and chicken stir fry, for example – resulting in that much more food waste and hungry kids.

Tell me what you think.

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  1. Mom says

    No more carob! Sorry for that wrong turn. Now only dark chocolate for all.

    This is the best Blog ever, no bias, of course.

  2. ag says

    Great topic. One quick thing that comes to mind is my middle and high school experience. Our school had a working kitchen where head lunch lady Mrs. Barnes cranked out spaghetti, meatloaf, sh*t on a shingle (hey, that’s what we called it), surf-n-turf and tons of chilli mac. And stroganoff. Everybody complained about the awful food, but now I wonder why. We all ate it. There were no seconds, but we wanted them. The football players especially would ask for more and sometimes get it. The food was good and we ate it.

    Now kids have been conditioned to eat pre-made, frozen, then reheated food that, as you point out is meant to resemble fast food. It’s sad, really. Even the so-called healthier options are faked out foods. Who needs lowfat cheese? Lowfat usually means saltier and it doesn’t even melt right. The whole wheat is super processeses so that it will have the mushy, Wonderbread feel that kids prefer. Why can’t they just serve real food?

    As always, I’m just frustrated.

    • says

      Totally agree! I recall many meals at my elementary school quite fondly, even though we, too, complained.

      And I agree that we have indeed strayed too far from “real food.”


  3. Darcy says

    I totally agree with you! Why is it that nobody gives kids any credit for being open to more than white foods? We all assume that if it’s not on white bread or deep fried, our kids won’t eat it, and of course at a certain point that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But put different types of foods in front of them at an early enough age and …voila! you suddenly have kids who are happy to have salmon or grilled chicken taco or – gasp – green veggies! It also irks me that there is an assumption that kids only like totally plain food. Let’s face it… food tastes better with garlic and spices. So I’m with you… let’s get Jamie Oliver cooking for all the kids!

  4. Melissa says

    My kid ate lunch in the cafeteria everyday this year, and while he routinely eats veggies at home, he wouldn’t touch them at school. Why? Because they are an overcooked, tasteless mush. I know it’s difficult to make tasty meals for the masses, but until schools start making the “healthy stuff” look and taste better, no kid I know is going to eat it.

  5. Karen says

    My choice is to pack a lunch for my kids 80% of the time. I don’t like what’s offered at the cafeteria, and neither do they. When they get to buy, one day a week, we give them enough $$ for a grilled cheese sandwich and we pack fresh fruit and milk in their lunch bags.

    Our food service (private school, Houston) is meant to be healthy. It’s pricey and the choices are not appealing, to the kids or the parents or the adult staff. The fresh fruit is very limited – and how many K-2 kids can actually eat an apple whole? There are too many loose teeth or missing teeth to make this happen. Are schools afraid of grapes for this age group?

    Offering a healthy lunch for kids at school is a difficult experience where none of the decisions are really great, between waste and nutrition and choosy palates and missing teeth and other issues. One of my kids frequently leaves her lunch uneaten because she’s too busy talking and laughing with her friends to get it done in 30 minutes. She’s been known to take a whole hour to finish dinner. What school is going to let her relax over the midday meal?

  6. A.Levy says

    I am so with you on this topic. My daughter is a healthy eater, but she won’t touch the salad bar at her (private) school. She says it’s gross. At a younger age she was constantly exposed to sugar-loaded snacks at every opportunity, from soccer practices to school birthday celebrations. I can’t claim to have been a particularly healthy eater as a child. We did eat bologna on Wonder Bread and PB & J; we just ate less of it. And we exercised more.

  7. Tracy says

    I totally agree with you on this topic as well! We cook at home almost everyday with fresh fruits and veggies and non-processed foods. My son is used to it and loves it. After trying the school lunches a few times, my kindergarten son decided he wanted me to pack his lunch every day and requested his strawberries, raspberries, humus, etc. I am so proud of him. Unfortunately, when I went to visit him during lunch, there is a vending machine in the cafeteria full of candy. Two student asked me for money so I would buy them candy. In the school handbook it says, “students are not allowed to use the vending machines during lunch”. Then why is it there???? I was shocked and totally frustrated! Can we discuss the candy and soda rewards? My son ended up with 7 cavities after his first year in school. We are so frustrated!

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Tracy: Welcome to The Lunch Tray and thank you for your comment. And yes, I absolutely want to discuss the issue of candy rewards. I’ll recount the time my daughter came home with a movie-theater size candy bar from the “treasure box” and my son was getting M&M’s for every correct math answer! – Bettina


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