Cooking With Kids: School Lunches

Hello there, children!

Hello there, children! | Photograph from iStockPhoto.com

Concerned chefs and food writers agree: American school lunches suck. Reform programs such as Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard have sprung up at every grade level from kindergarten to college.

Deborah Madison recently took a trip to France and observed schoolchildren choosing between two salads, mâche with roast duck and fava beans or mâche with salmon and asparagus. Meanwhile, Ann Cooper's book Lunch Lessons surveys the depressing fast-food landscape of the average American school and offers some ideas for fixing up your school's lunch program.

And the novel Hot Lunch tells the story of two girls who start a food fight in the high school cafeteria and are sentenced to serve as lunch ladies. It's a good read, though I'm not sure how young readers will feel about the story's various morals, served up by the steaming ladleful. The author goes by the pen name Alex Bradley, but he's actually Jeremy Jackson, author of several cookbooks, including The Cornbread Book and Good Day for a Picnic.

Personally, I can see the storm cloud of chicken nuggets gathering on the horizon, but my daughter Iris, 3, just started preschool, and her school doesn't serve hot lunch. So I have to send sack lunch, and if it's no good, I have no one to blame but myself.

According to my mother, I subsisted on cookies and the occasional bite of a peanut butter sandwich for most of my sack-lunch years. That was before schools cared about peanut allergies. Iris's school is a nut-free zone. This is not going to be so easy.

Packing the sack got even trickier after I read an article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

But building a green, even organic, school lunch doesn't have to consume a parent's evening or disrupt the morning coffee. There are basic steps—use whole-grain bread and other complex carbohydrates, fruits and vegetable dips—that inject health into the school lunch.

Healthy sack lunch? Uh-oh. Iris has only been going to school for a few days, and my most successful lunch so far, the one she finished and was not starving after school, consisted of grapes, several slices of ham, and chocolate toucan cookies from Trader Joe's.

The kid just loves ham. She would be happy with ham every day. If it were local, sustainable ham—something from Salumi, perhaps—could we call that a green lunch?

What do you put in your children's lunch boxes? Do they eat it?

About the author: Matthew Amster-Burton lives in Seattle. His work appears frequently in the Seattle Times and Seattle magazine. He also maintains the blog Roots and Grubs. His favorite food is pad Thai.

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