Notes From the Field: What Did This Spinach Do to Deserve Such a Fate?

On today’s menu, the kids had a choice of chili mac with a dinner roll or a chicken corn dog; steamed spinach; apple sauce; and the new banana chocolate chip cake the PAC tasted last month.  Here’s a picture:

I was most interested in seeing the steamed spinach, a new item on our menu this year.  When I first heard about the spinach from Houston ISD/Aramark Food Services, I couldn’t see how they were going to pull it off without the end result being limp and overcooked.  It turns out my concerns were well founded.  Not one child at at the table I met with would even touch it.  (And the truth is, even if the leaves had been bright and green, plain steamed spinach is still a pretty spartan dish to plop down in front of a bunch of elementary school students.)

I applaud the desire to serve spinach.  I understand that HISD cooks from a central kitchen and trucks the food to schools, so on-site prep is not in the cards.  And I know all about the absurdly high calorie counts that school districts have to meet under current USDA regulations.

So wouldn’t it make more sense to cook the spinach in a manner that’s more likely to survive transport/reheating AND which bumps up the calories AND which is far more likely to appeal to kids?   How about a baked spinach casserole made with reduced fat cheese and topped with crunchy bread crumbs?  Such a dish would reheat well.  Kids would be getting the calcium we’re so worried about (so much so that we serve artificially colored and flavored milk with as much sugar as a serving of ice cream) and presumably the higher calorie count would mean we don’t need to serve the empty-calorie chocolate chip cake anymore.

What do you think?  Which are kids more likely to try?

If there’s a reason why this proposal is unrealistic, I’d love for someone from HISD/Aramark (or maybe Maggie, the TLT reader who is in school food services in an undisclosed district) to share their thoughts.


  1. NotCinderell says

    They’d probably say that with the corn dog and banana cake, the spinach/cheese casserole would be too high in fat.

    Of course, the corn dog is non-negotiable. Replacing it with, say, a broiled chicken leg is unthinkable.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      NotCinderell – I guess I was thinking (but didn’t say in my post) that of course the rest of the meal would have to be tweaked. But wouldn’t we all be happier with cheesy spinach and baked chicken, versus uneaten gloppy spinach and a fried corn dog? And btw, my district actually is doing baked BBQ chicken parts this year that are a big hit! – Bettina

      • Maggie says

        Cheesy spinach that will be eaten or plain that won’t. That is the kind of question that can make life interesting in the kitchen. :-) There will be those who look at it in black and white and decree cheese is not acceptable. And others that want to look at the balance that you mention.

        Kind of the same discussion as about flavored milk. Although I personally understand the amount of sugar in the flavored milks, there are folks who see it as acceptable compared to the child not choosing milk at all.

  2. Stephanie says

    Other great spinach ideas: Creamed Spinach with Parmesan, Spinach Quiche/Frittata, Beef and Spinach stir-fry loaded with other veggies like Red Bell Peppers, Spinach and Strawberry salad with a fruity dressing… hmmmm!
    Although, if we could just get some seasoning (salt, pepper, garlic powder) and a sprinkle of parmesan – it would be soooo much better than what is plopped on the tray now!

  3. Maggie says

    I’m pretty useless for this one. I’m not as familiar with the nutrient based menu planning method for one thing (as far as swapping calories/nutriends in a spinach casserole for those in the cake) , and also not familiar with a central kitchen arrangement. I have no idea how the prep/packaging equipment might work and what is possible or not. For example, would putting a topping on each portion be something that could be done or not?

    My first thought was that even plain, fresh spinach (or mixed with other greens) as a salad would be more appealing. But, do they have the capability to do a refrigerated item like that?

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Maggie: Didn’t mean to put you on the spot. :-) And I was really envisioning bread crumbs sprinkled on top of a huge casserole, baked and then dished out. But forget the bread crumbs – you get the idea. As for salad, I had a long talk with Food Services and I think their answer would be they couldn’t afford fresh greens. Whether kids would even eat them is another story. Thanks as always for your input! – Bettina

  4. says

    The steamed spinach was probably chosen due to the calorie balance and cost. A baked casserole is more costly – not just for ingredients, but for labor which is perhaps the reason it was not a choice. For a lunch such as this it’s tough to find a vegetable that kids like and will eat. Eliminating the dessert is probably not the best idea since the goal is to get kids to eat and having a dessert on the plate increases the chances that they will eat something – even if it is not the most nutrient dense item on the menu. If it were up to me, I would substitute a cabbage slaw with a fruit dressing. Cabbage is fairly inexpensive, holds up well even when dressed and is colorful – a fruit/yogurt dressing is sweet which generally appeals to kids.

    As for the calorie requirements, that is a tough one and why the “one size fits all” approach doesn’t work. In some student populations, it is definitely necessary to have a higher calorie lunch – in other populations a lower calorie requirement is probably more appropriate. It all depends upon the demographics of the kids being served.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Nancy: I’m not sure the labor costs would be that much higher for the dish I’m proposing, but I’d love to find that out from our food services group. And I would disagree with you about eliminating dessert. When we have a population that’s a captive audience, and in an era in which 30% or more of children are obese, why serve dessert? As Chef Ann Cooper said to me once in a call, “Children will not starve themselves.” As for calories generally, I totally agree with you that in some places the issue is needing MORE calories and in others, fewer. But of course the current USDA scheme makes no such distinctions. Thanks for commenting! – Bettina

      • Maggie says

        Captive, yet not. If the students choose a meal from home, food service doesn’t get paid. Which makes perfect sense, (we wouldn’t want to pay tax dollars to schools for meals NOT served) but puts us (food service) in the interesting position of walking the line of serving menus that students will choose to purchase, fulfilling all the rules, continuing to work to meet new input and ideas.

        I suppose it partly depends on the percentage of free students in a district/school as well…that could indicate a more captive audience I suppose.

        In regard to children not starving themselves, I’m not sure they are even thinking about hunger. They have been dropped at the door by their teacher, set free from a morning of classroom time. They are talking, shouting to their friends, possibly thinking more about recess than the meal in front of them. *sigh* So many components to this beyond the food.

  5. says

    Vegetable-wise, this is par for the course when you hire a food service management company to serve processed factory food. It’s almost impossible to serve vegetables as a separate side dish kids will actually eat. As you say, better to blend the spinach into something else. In D.C., the Chartwells cooks have actually been making spinach/cheese lasagna from scratch.

    Aramark must be spending a fortune on all those little plastic food containers on the tray. What a waste. And chocolate chip cake for school lunch? With a corn dog? That’s just so last century.

    • bettina elias siegel says

      Ed: Glad you hear that your FSMC (Chartwells) is more creative with the vegetables. And I totally agree about the corn dog/cake menu – what can I say? We’re working on it, slowly. As for the plastic waste, how does it work in DC? Does a food service worker dish food out onto the disposable tray? In our school, kids take the individual containers and place them on their tray. I wonder if it’s a labor cost issue? Yet as you say, the cost of all those containers can’t be insignificant. – Bettina

    • Maggie says

      Ed, can you give me any thoughts about how much or how far you can go to put a new food into an established favorite?

      I’m working with younger children, and it seems (only from observation, I have not done an official tally or such) that introducing a new food mixed in, even in an established favorite, will lead to a lot of “no thank you” because they don’t care for that added item…and then they are missing out on the entire item, because of the one ingredient. “Don’t let the food touch” seems to be the elementary school motto! (Spinach/cheese lasagna sounds wonderful to me!)

  6. Em says

    I’m apparently one of the few people in the entire US getting the recommended daily servings of veggies– I’m a complete veg-head and adore practically every kind of veg I come across. Spinach is one of my faves. That said, I pretty much never steam things, and I definitely don’t order steamed veggies when I go out to eat. Let’s be honest: who REALLY wants to eat plain steamed anything?

    • NotCinderell says

      Mot this veg head! The only vegetables I eat steamed plain are sugar snap peas, corn on the cob, and asparagus.

    • Uly says

      My nieces, oddly, prefer their veggies steamed!

      But I slather steamed vegetables with oil and salt and often lemon juice, they’re hardly “plain”

  7. June says


    Not in Texas, but I vote for cheesy spinach or spinach lasagna (lasagna looks mysterious and unknown anyway once on the school tray). And, my son loves spinach just about any which way,EXCEPT steamed and plain. I can’t believe the lunch kitchen didn’t know they were setting themselves up for failure. (Even I can’t eat just plain old steamed spinach and I eat just about anything.)

  8. Lenée says

    Bettina–You ask if there might be a labor cost issue regarding the little plastic trays. Does your school have student helpers in the lunchroom? When I was managing the kitchen at my kids’ elementary school I had seven or eight 5th and 6th grade volunteers come everyday to help with service. These kids loved it. Some used the hours they worked with me as a contribution to their community service projects which helped them with science camp costs and various other activities. These helpers allowed for us to serve 400-500 lunches everyday with only 2 adults. We had a base kitchen in the district and received most of our foods already prepped and in warmers, and the base kitchen (at the middle school) also used student volunteers for service and some prep. I did all of the cooking and prep for breakfast by myself on site, and if anything needed additional prep for lunch I usually had one of the kids do it if appropriate. I know this practice saves the district lots of money, and I wonder if it’s a common practice in other states.

  9. Viki says

    yet another “you can lead a horse to water” type of situation. What is it 15 times you may have to introduce a child to a new food before they will eat it? Well, steamed is NOT the way to go with spinach, or most foods really, but School Kitchens aren’t set up to do much else now are they?
    Could they put spinach in the pasta sauce, one instance where “hiding” the veg is acceptable IMO. Both my kids will eat spinach in their salads.
    Was there another wonderful poster hanging on the wall about Spinach?

  10. kate says

    wouldnt it be easier just to not serve spinach and get something kids like better like apples or bannnas or even a fresh salad. at my school no one would even tough that green blob but we would eat an apple or orange……


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