New York Times: School Lunch Found to Be a Childhood Obesity Risk Factor

The New York Times “Vital Signs” column reports today on a study of more than a thousand Michigan sixth graders which found that those students who regularly ate school lunch were 29% more likely to be obese than those who brought lunch from home.

This finding bolsters my own conclusions on this subject.

You might recall that back in September I wrote a post called “Can a Child Become Overweight Just from Eating School Lunch? — A TLT Experiment”  I invented an eight-year old boy, Jimmy, and gave him an average height and weight using CDC growth charts.  I then calculated Jimmy’s caloric needs for the day and generously alloted 1/3 of his calories toward lunch — generous because this assumed that, unlike almost all children, he wasn’t eating snacks between meals.  I then sent Jimmy through my Houston district’s elementary school lunch line over the course of a single week, letting him pick and choose from the week’s menu as he wished (lots of chocolate milk, tacos, burgers and the rest).

My conclusion?  On a daily basis, Jimmy exceeded his artificially high calorie maximum at lunch by an average of 231.8 calories.  And since a pound of weight gain represents 3,500 unneeded calories, an extra 350 calories of food a day would cause a child to gain an extra pound every ten days (350×10).

The good news, as noted in the Times article, is that under the new USDA school food regulations, calorie minimums for school meals are going down, and a broader variety of fruits and vegetables (not just corn and potatoes) will be offered.

It remains to be seen how little Jimmy will fare on the new school food.  I’ll revisit this experiment using my school district’s revised menus when they’re in effect.

[Hat tip: June Edelstein]

Lunch Tray Friday Buffet: October 15, 2010

On tap for this week’s Lunch Buffet:  all Jamie, all the time; a dose of reality from a school food reformer; and a word of warning to Lunch Tray readers carrying a few extra pounds — and with plans to emigrate to New Zealand (all one of you.)

Three Jamie Oliver-Related Items

First, the Guardian ran this candid interview with Food Revolutionary Jamie Oliver, who’s quite forthcoming in his answers.  [Hat tip:  Spoonfed.]  Second, here’s a short video of Jamie in his chicken nugget costume as part of the Chipotle Boorito contest.  (It wasn’t until I saw the video that I realized that Jamie’s “hat” is a little dollop of dipping sauce.  Pretty cute.)  And third, just a heartfelt thank you to the Lunch Tray readers who took the time to plug TLT on the Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Facebook page this week!

Blog Post Title of the Week

From the What’s Cooking blog, a post called “School Lunch Reform – Stick a Spork in My Eye.”  That pretty much sums up how I feel much of the time.  Read the post for the author’s honest assessment of the progress she’s made and setbacks she’s encountered as she tries to improve school food.   [Hat tip: The Yummy Mummy]

If You Want to Become a Kiwi, Eat Fewer Fries and More  . . . Kiwis?

My friend Laurie tipped me off to this bizarre bit of information:  if you’re overweight, don’t try emigrating to New Zealand. Apparently, in an effort to lessen demand on the nation’s health resources, fat people are barred at the door.  This article reminded me of a story I heard recently, in which a person I know was advised not to start a business in Texas because the workforce. over time, will be crippled by health problems stemming from obesity.   I don’t endorse discriminatory programs like the one in New Zealand, but it’s naive to assume that the real-world costs associated with obesity are going to be blithely overlooked by businesses (or nations) out to protect their bottom line.

Have a great weekend!  More Lunch Tray on Monday . . .

Can a Child Become Overweight Just From Eating School Lunch? — A TLT Experiment

Sitting in our Food Services Parent Advisory Committee meeting yesterday, a question popped into my mind.  With all the laudable improvements Houston ISD has recently made to its menu, could a child still become overweight just from eating school lunch?  In other words, would a child making seemingly bad choices on the lunch line be somehow “protected from himself” by the menu improvements (e.g., ground beef entrees that now use one-half ground turkey, or dishes that substitute low-fat cheese for full-fat)?

To figure this out, I invented an eight-year old boy, Jimmy, with the average height of 50 inches and average weight of 55 pounds (I got these figures from weight charts issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; given that 40% of Texas children are obese, Jimmy is lucky I allowed him to weigh in as an “average” child.)  I decided that little Jimmy is a couch potato, not very athletic and a big fan of video games and computers.  Then I went to a site that calculates lazy Jimmy’s caloric needs for the day:  1,426.   Ignoring the fact that today’s kids eat snacks — 98% of kids report eating at least three snacks a day, and 50% report eating five snacks a day — I generously allocated 1/3 of  Jimmy’s caloric requirements to each meal of the day — 475 calories per meal — so that he could really go to town on the lunch line without exceeding his caloric limit.

Next I pulled up Houston ISD’s August/September lunch menu and let Jimmy go through the lunch line for a single week (week of August 30th), picking what seemed to me to be the worst food choices I could find.  Following the guidelines in place in our district, Jimmy had to take one entree, and then could choose up to three other items, including milk.  To be fair to the district, I didn’t have Jimmy take every single thing served (although I’m not sure why I made that concession since many kids do take all the food offered.)

Here was Jimmy’s menu for the week:

Monday: Frito Pie (380 calories, 22 grams of fat); mac-n-cheese (38 calories/1 gram of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 568 calories/25.5 grams of fat);

Tuesday: Cheeseburger (340 calories/17 grams of fat); baked fries (124 calories/4 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 614 calories/23.5 grams of fat);

Wednesday:  Soft beef taco (524 calories/23 grams of fat): refried beans (123 calories/2 grams of fat): chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat)  (total = 797 calories/27.5 grams of fat);

Thursday: Pasta with meat sauce (355 calories/9 grams of fat) that comes with garlic toast (90 calories/3 grams of fat); jalapeno corn bread (no nutritional info available, so I used the district’s dinner roll as a reasonable proxy: 170 calories/9 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 765 calories/24.5 grams of fat);

Friday: Chicken tenders (243 calories/13 grams of fat) served with a dinner roll (170 calories/9 grams of fat); brownie (227 calories/7 grams of fat); chocolate milk (150 calories/2.5 grams of fat) (total = 790 calories/31.5 grams of fat).

Thus, on a daily basis, Jimmy is exceeding his artificially high (due to no allowance for snacks) calorie maximum at lunch by an average of 231.8 calories.  Since a pound of weight gain represents 3,500 unneeded calories, an extra 350 calories of food a day would cause a child to gain an extra pound every ten days (350×10).  So on this daily diet, supplied by his own school, little Jimmy may not be “little” for much longer.

Now, I’m the first to admit that this is a highly unscientific experiment, and doesn’t account for what Jimmy is or is not eating out of school.  (On the other hand, the experiment is generous to the district, in that Jimmy wasn’t permitted to eat any snacks, which is highly unrealistic.)  It’s also important to note that current USDA caloric requirements for school food are likely to decrease if Congress passes the pending reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Act.

But the experiment does make the point, I think, that for all the school food improvements we’ve seen in our district (and I’m grateful for all of them, don’t get me wrong), there are still offerings that permit kids to make very poor selections on the lunch line, selections that may well have an adverse impact on their health down the line.

All the more reason why, in the fight against childhood obesity, we must arm kids with nutrition education.   Unlike little Jimmy, we need kids to understand how to make the best choices for themselves, even when their school district isn’t making matters any easier by serving the menu described above.

Make a School Lunch Resolution and Win Free Organic Milk for a Year

Just discovered a neat website devoted to healthful food, Simple, Good and Tasty.

They’re holding a contest right now where you submit a resolution regarding school lunch and can win a year’s supply of Organic Valley milk.  Here’s their example of a resolution you might make:

I promise to pack at least one new food item in my kids’ lunch bag each month, something fresh and tasty that they might like, or at least try. I also promise to go to school and eat lunch with my kids at least three times this year.

Submissions are due by Monday, September 27th.  Good luck!

[Thanks, Chef Ann, for the Tweet about this!]

Notes From the Field: Frito Pie and Mashed Potatoes

Last week I chose a random day to visit my children’s cafeteria and here’s what was being served:

To the right is pepperoni pizza, to the left is Frito Pie, and both were served with mashed potatoes, green beans and an apple. (The child on the right had declined the potatoes and had purchased an ice cream a la carte).  For the uninitiated (and that would include me, before moving to Texas), classic Frito Pie consists of Frito corn chips topped with chili, cheese and often other toppings, served straight-up or sometimes baked together.

I believe — based on prior conversations with Houston ISD food services — that (1) the Frito Pie is made from baked, whole grain chips; (2) the chili contains beef and beans (the beans are a new addition); (3) there is some whole grain in the pizza crust (but I don’t know the percentage), and (4) both dishes use low-fat (or maybe reduced-fat) cheese.  [Ed Update:  I later learned the chips are fried.]

I’m glad that those nutritional improvements have been made, and I have no problem with kid-friendly options like pizza and Frito Pie appearing on the menu some of the time. But as I’ve talked about quite a bit on The Lunch Tray (starting with my very first post), it does concern me that our menu is currently still weighted almost entirely in favor of “kid food” (or what one source in Janet Poppendieck’s Free For All calls “carnival fare”).

Based on last week’s menu, in the course of one week a child could have eaten for lunch: beef taco nachos, a chicken fried steak with cream gravy, a breaded chicken sandwich, and Frito Pie (or pepperoni pizza) served with mashed potatoes.   Whether we like it or not, a child is likely to believe that this constitutes an sound daily diet – or why else would his or her school serve it?   And children have no idea that these foods might be somehow “better” than the same offerings at a restaurant.

What takes place in the cafeteria constitutes a lesson — just as much as what takes place in the classroom.  So, what are we teaching our children?

Why Current USDA Nutrition Standards Result in Sugary School Meals

I’ve written quite a bit here about the reliance of my school district on items like graham crackers to meet the high caloric requirements set by the USDA for school breakfasts.  I’ve also been surprised as I do my “Notes from the Field” features to see how often dessert is served as part of the school lunch in my kids’ cafeteria.

At both breakfast and lunch, processed foods that are high in sugar show up on kids’ trays for no other reason than compliance with outdated governmental regulations, a practice that flies in the face of reason as we face a childhood obesity crisis.  Ed Bruske, blogger at Better DC School Food, has a great post up today clearly explaining the sugar/calorie problem — and offering a glimmer of hope for the future.  It’s well worth reading.

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

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.

USDA and Let’s Move Hold School Food Recipe Contest

First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign, along with the USDA, are offering cash prizes for coming up with tasty, healthy recipes for inclusion on school lunch menus.

Teams — consisting of school nutrition professionals, chefs, students, parents and interested community members — have to develop and prepare at least one recipe in one of three categories (Whole Grains, Dark Green and Orange vegetables, or Dry Beans and Peas), then serve it in their cafeteria where it will be rated by students.  Fifteen semi-finalist teams will have their recipe evaluated by the contest judges, and the top three teams will compete in a national cook-off to determine the grand prize winner. (Semi-finalists’ recipes will also be posted for online voting by the public to determine a Popular Choice Winner.)

Prizes will range from $1,500 to $3,000, and the contest period ends on December 30th.

Visit to learn how to enter and for other contest details.

[Hat tip:  Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution]

Notes From the Field: An Instructive Visit to My Kids’ Cafeteria

I blog about kids and food daily, especially school food, but I’m embarrassed to admit that last Friday was the first time in a long while that I’ve actually been in my own children’s school cafeteria during lunch.

I came that day especially to see the debut of the acorn squash that’s been much touted in my school district as one of the new menu improvements.  But when I got to the lunch room, my friend Cheryl (a dedicated monitor of what’s going on in our cafeteria) said that the promised squash wasn’t being served.  Sure enough, when I looked at kids’ trays I saw a depressingly beige/brown meal of fried fish (with a slice of cheese inserted under the fried coating — why?),  a roll (which did look like it contained some whole wheat flour), canned fruit cocktail, baked apples and a brownie.

But when I went to the serving line to ask about the whereabouts of the squash, I was told I was looking right at it — what Cheryl and I (and no doubt the kids) had mistaken for baked apples was in fact the new acorn squash.  No one in the serving line was telling the kids what it was, and there was no printed menu or sign to inform them.

The problem, of course, is that when you pick up your fork and expect to taste baked apples but get something else entirely, you’re likely to wonder what the heck is wrong with the apples.   And in fact, looking around, I saw tray after tray with barely touched (or entirely untouched) squash.

I’ve already gone on record in my Houston Chronicle editorial about the critical need for student education about any new foods that are added to the menu.  The acorn squash mix-up is a perfect demonstration of my point.  If a parent volunteer had stood up on the stage in our lunch room and explained what was on kids’ trays, and maybe even offered a little incentive like an “I Tried It!” sticker for taking a nibble, perhaps less squash would’ve ended up in the trash that day.

As for the actual flavor of the squash, I asked my daughter’s friend for a bite (which she was more than happy to provide since she refused to touch it) and was a bit taken aback.  It was sweet but lacking any hint of the promised cinnamon.  Worse, there was a decidedly greasy note going on – not butter, which would have been nice, but rather an off-putting (at least to me) oily flavor.  (But who knows if the kids would’ve had the same reaction.  Many of them loved their cheesy fried fish, which I found too gross to even look at.)

Reformers like Dr. Susan Rubin urge us to visit our lunchrooms often, to taste the food, to take pictures, and to talk to kids, because what we see printed on the school menu is often inaccurate or misleading.  Indeed, bloggers like Mrs. Q and Ed Bruske are doing that every single day in their own schools and their photos and descriptions are invaluable for showing us what’s really happening “on the ground.”

After Friday’s acorn squash experience, I plan on following their lead and becoming a semi-regular fixture in my kids’ lunchroom.   Stay tuned.

Lunch Box Idea Exchange Going Strong – Come Share!

In a late Friday afternoon post last week, I officially opened The Lunch Tray’s Lunch Box Idea Exchange to answer that never-ending question: what on earth do I put in the lunch box today?

We already have lots of great suggestions posted and I personally am getting busy expanding my rather narrow lunch box repertoire, but the more ideas we get, the better for everyone.  So if you haven’t done so already, please stop by the exchange and share an idea or two.  (And in the coming days, I’ll also link you to lots of other blogs’ idea exchanges on the same topic.)

It takes a village to pack a lunch, so come do your part!

A Mom Caves on School Lunch – What Are Your Thoughts?

A parent recently contacted me:

I don’t know where to post this on The Lunch Tray, so I am writing directly to you. I have caved. I have a daughter who does not eat anything I give her for lunch (doesn’t eat sandwiches, lunch meat, has been returning the cheese sticks I give her, can’t eat eggs or peanut butter). I can get her to snack on an apple or some berries, but she ends up getting food from her friends (not great for a kid with food sensitivities), and it is usually junk. She is starving when she gets home and eats so much that she often does not eat dinner. So………….

……..I signed her up for school lunch. WITH the following caveats: MUST eat a nutritious breakfast (she is not a morning eater, so I am making her fruit smoothies with yogurt for protein and dairy), gets a snack that contains nutrition (fiber, protein), and also eats a nutritious dinner (I don’t do take-out or processed foods). It is a battle I feel I must lose so that I can win the war.

A part of me feels as if I am a traitor/failure. Yet I don’t want the lunch issue to ruin the rest of the day’s meals. Thoughts?

My feeling is that this reader shouldn’t beat herself up about this choice.  In our efforts to improve school lunch, we don’t want to demonize the existing food beyond all reason.   This is especially at the elementary level, where kids have far less freedom and can’t choose (as they can in Houston’s middle and high schools) things like slushies, pizza and breaded chicken sandwiches day after day.

I wrote:

The truth is, if she eats the school lunch, she’s getting relatively decent nutrition (in terms of nutrients) — it’s just that the foods may be more processed than you’d like, or less palatable than she’d like. But at least one study has shown that kids who regularly eat school lunch are actually doing better nutritionally than ones who don’t.   [Ed. Note:  I know you all are going to jump all over me for that one – I’m trying to track down where I read that.] And at any rate, school lunch only = 5 meals out of 21 a week, plus snacks, and you’re doing an admirable job with the rest.  I would absolutely let yourself off the hook on this one.

At the request of this parent, I’m throwing this open to Lunch Tray readers.  Should she feel like a traitor or a failure?

It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch

I have Lunch Tray readers well trained not to expect posts from me on Friday after the Lunch Buffet appears, but then I learned of a blog/Twitter party (who even  knew there was such a thing?) being hosted over the weekend by Mrs. Q (the anonymous teacher behind Fed Up with Lunch) and by Scatteredmom at Notes from the Cookie Jar. Apparently if I blog about certain lunch-related topics and let them know about it, as well as mingling (in a virtual sense) with other bloggers, I’m eligible to win all sorts of fabulous prizes.  Or something like that.

At any rate, the blog/Twitter party was a good excuse to kick off (a few days early) September’s Back-to-School festivities on The Lunch Tray, starting with the promised TLT Lunch Box Exchange.

First, the ground rules.  To participate in the exchange, leave in a comment below your favorite, go-to lunch box “entrees” – you can share a whole list or just one, you can link to recipes, whatever you like.  The only thing you cannot do is comment unfavorably on an idea left by someone else.  Lunch Tray readers have shown themselves to be a polite and supportive bunch, but it’s clear that we all come from different perspectives when it comes to kids and food.  So if you find someone else’s lunch idea nutritionally wanting — too high in sodium (I know I’m guilty there) or sugar or overly processed or whatever, just keep that little thought to yourself. 

OK, I’ll kick things off.  Here are three entrees that my kids have liked – on and off — over the years that are a little more unusual than the standard PBJ:

Brown rice and edamame: If you don’t happen to have leftover brown rice, and if, like me, you’re willing to pay a grossly inflated price for convenience, throw one of those pre-cooked, frozen brown rice bags into the microwave until done (three minutes).  Mix a half-cup or so of the rice in a bowl with a handful of cooked edamame, season to taste with soy sauce and toasted sesame oil.  Put in Thermos.  (If you really wanted to get fancy, you could add sliced green onion and/or sesame seeds, but who wants to get fancy at 7:o0 am?)

Bean and cheese wrap:  spread canned refried (fat-free, if you like) pinto or black beans on a whole wheat tortilla and sprinkle with shredded Jack, Colby or other cheese.  Microwave just to warm it up a bit, spread on some salsa, roll and slice.  It’s room temperature when eaten, but apparently that hasn’t bothered anyone so far.

“Limey” Dip:  I got this recipe from one of my favorite bloggers, Catherine Newman, back when she was writing for the now-defunct Wondertime magazine.  Not everyone loves the admittedly odd combination of edamame and lime pureed in a creamy dip, but I do (and my daughter did for a long while).  Put the dip in a small container and pack with dipping vehicles like crackers, pita chips, crudite, etc.  By the way, I leave out the optional garlic when I make this.

Keeping in mind that, with only a few exceptions, sandwiches are generally spurned in my house, here are . . .

My other go-to lunch box items:

  • Amy’s or Whole Foods bean burritos, heated until cooked, then wrapped in foil;
  • yogurt;
  • leftover anything, but especially pastas, black bean soup (packed with some baked corn chips and shredded cheese to mix into it), turkey or bean chili (ditto);
  • steamed Asian dumplings, cut-up into a Thermos and doused with soy sauce;
  • peanut butter – on crackers or in a PBJ on whole wheat;
  • hard-boiled eggs;
  • shredded cheese (for some reason, my kids reject cheese in stick or sliced form)
  • spicy, pumpkin-stuffed Indian naan that we get at a local farmer’s market;
  • hummus and pita chips; and
  • tomato soup
  • [Ed update: “forgot” to add one I’m not proud of – deep fried, frozen chicken taquitos from Whole Foods, microwaved until hot and then cut in half and put in a Thermos.  Not so great nutritionally but tasty and really easy if you’re pressed for time.]

Sadly, that’s the beginning and end of my entire lunch box repertoire at the moment, and more than a few of these have fallen out of favor (don’t you hate when that happens?).  So I’m counting on you, Lunch Tray readers, to dig me out of a serious rut.

Start talking, people.

[Ed. Update:  After you check out all the great ideas below, be sure to read “It Takes a Village to Pack a Lunch, Part 2,” which collects even more lunch ideas from around the Internet.]

New York Times Covers Chocolate Milk Wars

From today’s Dining section, this story about whether or not flavored milk should be served in school cafeterias.  Not much new is presented by the Times, but it’s a good summary of the issues at stake.

Coincidentally, I’m just now finishing a post in which I revisit my earlier position reluctantly supporting flavored milk in schools.   Since then, I’ve come across a lot of information on the other side of the argument that’s worth considering.

Stay tuned.