The Mystery Food Services Director Answers a Question From Kids

by Bettina Elias Siegel on June 1, 2011

Readers who are new to this blog may not be aware of a unique service offered by TLT — “Ask the Mystery Food Services Director.”   If you have any questions about school food — how things got the way they are, how to change something that bugs you — you can submit your questions to a real live food service director who oversees school food in a relatively large urban district somewhere in the U.S.  Since he/she doesn’t work in your area, you’ll get straight answers to your questions, free from any district politics.

Recently the MFSD was asked a question by a child from Mrs. Clarke’s fourth grade class in Indian Trail, North Carolina.  I introduced you to this class a few months ago — they’re the kids who set out to:

trace the origins of two lunches – one from the cafeteria and one brought from home. They’ll be working with three questions: What is this and from where did it come? Are there healthier choices?  How does my lunch compare to others’ around the world?  They’ll be blogging about what they find and maybe creating a film.

One of those kids, Cole, wrote in a few days ago with this question:

I’m one of the kids in Mrs. Clarke’s class. We need some help from your mystery expert. We know that some schools – like ours – have our own kitchens, but some schools don’t and have lunch brought in to warm up. Which is healthier, and which one costs more? Is one more than processed than the other?

The MFSD responds:

As long as the quality of the ingredients and method of cooking are similar, there would be very little difference in the nutritional content of the meal.  If the scratch cooking or heat up process is just in time for meal service, the nutritional value of the meal should not suffer either.  However, if and when meals that are brought in for heat up and remain in a warming oven for a long period of time both the quality and nutritional value can decline.  This applies to scratch cooked meals as well; it’s like overcooking vegetables, if you cook them to death, you can lose the nutritional value of the vegetables.

In most cases, using the same ingredients, it does cost more to scratch cook meals from the raw state. The cost of labor is generally the variable.

If a meal like spaghetti and meatballs is cooked in exactly the same way, using the same fresh ingredients with no preservatives or other additives, one is scratch cooked, one is batch cooked and flash frozen, I do not consider either meal processed. If and when a meal is cooked, preservatives or other additives are included, then it becomes a processed meal (a processed meal is less nutritious).

I hope this answer helps your class out, Cole, and thanks for contacting The Lunch Tray!  :-)

Readers can see what Mrs. Clarke’s class has been up to this year by checking out their blog, A Tale of Two Lunches.  And if you have your own questions for the MFSD, just click here or use the drop-down window on the Contact tab above.

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