Notes From the Field: Carbo-Loading (But Without the Marathon)

by Bettina Elias Siegel on September 13, 2010

I visited my children’s cafeteria again on Friday.  Here’s what was served:

In case you can’t tell, the entree is a breaded chicken parmigiana cutlet served atop whole grain spaghetti, along with roasted potatoes, orange slices and a brownie.

The kids I spoke with loved the roasted potatoes and urged me to try one.  They were good, and it was great to see a potato on a lunch tray in something other than a french fry or tater tot form.  Unfortunately, though, the kids also reported that the pasta was served too cold, and none of the kids I spoke to seemed to know what the chicken parmigiana was, although some of them were eating it anyway.

Later in the day, my lunch room “eyes and ears,” Cheryl Sorak (a dedicated cafeteria volunteer at our school), reported that many of the little kids found the cutlet too hard to cut with their plastic spork — it was tender enough, but still hard to manage without a knife.  (I’m reminded of the episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution in which he’s appalled to learn that in this country, kids are not given proper silverware.)  Cheryl also reported that because there was only a smear of sauce on the cutlet and none on the pasta, many kids were adding ketchup to the pasta.  Yum.

One question I have is, why potatoes with pasta?  Obviously there’s no rule against eating these items together, but it does seem like a very high carb load for one meal, especially when you throw in a brownie to boot.  I know the meal needs a vegetable, but wouldn’t a pasta dish be an ideal place to squeeze in some green or orange vegetables in an unobtrusive way — carrots chopped very fine and mixed into the sauce for the chicken, for example?  (I wonder whether the district fears that if a stand-alone vegetable doesn’t appear on menus, parents will be upset?  Maybe a descriptor like “vegetable-enhanced sauce” would calm everyone down?)

But I do give credit to the district for what it got right:  sliced fruit (versus whole fruit that invariably gets thrown out), some whole grains in the pasta and brownie (although I don’t know what percentage), and roasted vs. fried potatoes.

I’ll be back in the cafeteria next week with more Notes From the Field.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Dr. Susan Rubin September 13, 2010 at 7:35 am

BRAVO! A picture tells a thousand words.

In addition to the excess carbs on those plates, consider those plates themselves! Styrofoam trays are one of those products made from petroleum that never, ever break down. Lots of green groups in schools are looking at alternatives.


bettina elias siegel September 13, 2010 at 7:50 am

Susan: I had the exact same thought looking at this picture this morning. I’ve been meaning for a long time to write about the waste issue in my district. It kills me to see all that styrofoam going into the trash and there are waste issues at the production level as well. Look for this topic in a future post. – Bettina


bettina elias siegel September 13, 2010 at 10:32 am

Oops – correction! My district just informed me that our trays are biodegradable and have been for the past two years. Glad to hear this news. But I still will address the waste issue generally in a future post. And thanks, Susan, for the link. – Bettina


Tari September 13, 2010 at 8:23 am

They ran out of the chicken parm and some kids were served something else – fish sticks, I think. My boys bought lunch last Friday and I know the younger one had no idea what the older one was talking about when he described the chicken parm.

Apparently 5th grade boys will just pick something up with their hands and eat it when the spork proves useless. This is how the chicken part of the parm was consumed, apparently. I **love** that my boys are learning such good table manners at school! ::growl.of.frustration::


Bri September 13, 2010 at 10:51 am

Um, question. Sauce-less pasta, with chicken parm? Why not have a nice marinara sauce (maybe even with some extra veggies snuck into it) over the pasta and chicken? How does that make less sense than POTATOES alongside pasta?
I agree that there’s no rule against this pairing, but it does seem odd. On the other hand, glad they like the roasted potatoes. But a salad would have been good too, or some pepper strips, or carrots, or broccoli, or…well…anything else that wasn’t starchy. And I agree that there is no sense in serving something to the children if you are not going to give them the necessary utensils to eat it. We have become a nation of people so afraid of every possible eventuality that we completely abandon common sense. In very few arenas is that as clear as it is in the school cafeteria.


bettina elias siegel September 13, 2010 at 10:57 am

Bri – I too, saw this as a great opportunity to sneak some veggies into the dish (see my post) and the salad or green vegetable side you suggest also makes perfect sense. As I’ve said many times here, these meals are teaching kids about food, whether we like the lesson being conveyed or not, and this one is teaching kids that pasta + potatoes + brownie is a “normal” lunch. As for the sporks, I’m not sure it’s a liability issue so much as a cost issue — I assume that the disposable spork is cheaper than the labor needed to wash real silverware, and cheaper even than a disposable knife and fork. Thanks as always for commenting here! – Bettina


Viki September 13, 2010 at 11:55 am

It has always been confusing to me that lunch time is not considered learning time in schools. I believe that children are learning all the time. The meal you showcase here is not a balanced meal. Way too many carbs which are going to hit the system like sugar and end up leaving the kids hungry by the time school is over.

I don’t like the lessons our lunchrooms teach our children.
Not just the ones about food but the ones about trust. They don’t trust the kids to use a knife and a fork to cut up food. Sometimes the “rules” are just silly. I look back on my time in high school during the enforced busing and race riots of the early 70’s and not one student stabbed another with a butter knife in my district. Yet now we use sporks in most schools.


Ma September 13, 2010 at 7:01 pm

Got to agree, potatoes are odd with that. Green beans perhaps? That would have been my thought if I’d been planning the menu. Broccoli, as mentioned would have looked good too. Tossed salad? Lots of “green” ideas.

The “veggie enhanced” sauce is an idea I’m on the fence about. I’m not sure if it would be risky to start to add unexpected ingredients in places they might not be expected. I completely understand the idea from the standpoint of nutrition – my concern is in the area of allergies and food sensitivities and, for lack of better word…trust…students (parents) being wary of what might turn up in an unexpected place. No, I don’t have any students with carrot allergies, but it wouldn’t surprise me either!


Maggie September 13, 2010 at 7:02 pm

So sorry, didn’t get the whole name typed before hitting enter.


bettina elias siegel September 13, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Maggie: I’m already on record as being against food sneakiness, so I agree, I don’t want to hide anything in there. I guess I meant generally incorporated into the sauce in small pieces. But I take your point – for both allergies and trust reasons, you do want to be clear about what’s in any school food. Thanks for commenting! – Bettina


Sally Drell September 15, 2010 at 1:15 am

Hi, Bettina,

Just wanted to mention that the automatic inclusion of milk in the daily lunch might not be the best idea, since lactose intolerance can start very early in the child’s life. I know the usual thinking is that growing children need calcium, but low-acid orange juice may be a better option, or filtered water. Milk allergies lead to stomach distress. Kids and parents need to know it’s not the best staple in a child’s diet. I know…I suffered for years and it was lactose…y’know. Allergies should be noted by an observant nutritionist; kids who don’t feel well after a meal have a perfect opportunity to learn what they shouldn’t be eating. Good learning experience. Vigilance is necessary. I agree the spork is frustrating.


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