The ubiquitous American grade school cafeteria is a drab place where limp-looking fruits sweetened in syrups are dispensed from tin cans. microwaved pizza is counted as a “vegetable” for the smattering of tomato paste atop the crust, and rubbery nuggets contain an unknown composition. Schools are charged with the feeding of more children than ever before, and are so constrained by budgetary guidelines that these institutions often sacrifice freshness in favor of poor-quality, mass-produced and heavily processed items. Not only does this approach put children at nutritional risk, it deprives them of the basic pleasure involved in eating real, good food. Moreover, there exists a dearth of evidence that kids actually learn better and demonstrate improved attention to school work when supplied meals made with fresh ingredients and an array of fruits and vegetables.
I am often surprised to hear otherwise reasonable parents profess that their children will only consume processed junk foods, surviving on steady diets of day-glo mac ‘n’ cheese, frozen fish sticks and french fries. The truth, of course, is that parents have bought in to junk food marketing with the same voracity as the children in their charge. Culturally, we have adopted the belief that there exists a realm of “adult cuisine” apart from “kid-friendly fare.” This is a commercial concept unique to American food habitude.
In France, school menus follow guidelines set by the French Ministry of National Education. Menus are created with consistency to foster a love of French cuisine, but are highly varied because the Ministry has stipulated that the same dish may not be produced more than once every two months. The French believe that children can like strong tastes, so they introduce early on those flavors most likely to evoke a reaction. The French Academy of Pediatricians recommends that the first foods given to babies are not bland cereals but rather things such as leek soup, endive orchard. Children eat mussels and parsnips, pistou and roasted vegetables. There is no distinction made between the “food of kids” and a meal fashioned for an adult. Good food is, after all, universal in its appeal.
I’ve followed that same rule in my own home, and I have extended those values to the lunches I prepare for my children. Instead of the cafeteria where chemical edibles are served on trash in the form of waxed paper wrappers or disposable plastic trays, my children get fresh foods served in zero-waste containers. They use real silverware, and I tuck tiny cloth checkered napkins in to each stainless bento box. A lunch built with my own two hands as a simple gesture of love and care, my children carry to school fresh produce and noodle salads, homemade gazpacho or vegetable stews, hunks of crusty bread and onigiri. It is both good nutrition and good food, and something they look forward to as a bright spot in their school day.
Importantly, these kinds of whole lunches train the palates of young children to prefer a diversity of tastes and textures. There are two dominate flavors in the processed foods provided American children: salty and sweet. Nutty grains are doused in sugar as packaged cereals, and tangy yogurt is sweetened with a jam-like fruit to taste of candy so that no tartness can be detected. Bitter greens are bathed in seas of salty cheese to make them favorable to the youngest consumer. When you make your own food, however, you can remove those elements masking the true character of food, and allow the natural qualities to comingle, combine and enhance each dish. Bitter greens can sauté in garlic for a robust salad; nutty bulgur can marry with the tartness of lemon and the sweetness of tomatoes in tabbouli.
Of course, it takes a bit more effort to assemble a bento box filled with delightful food than it does to prepare a soggy sandwich and toss in a warm juice box, but I’ve found it need not be too time consuming. Children love to be in the kitchen, and will gladly engage in the process. Make enough for the whole family, and send everyone in to their day with good food. I make sure to include the proper nutrition to carry my kids through their respective days: protein, carbohydrates, fruits, and vegetables. The long-lasting energy supplied by protein-dense beans, nuts, tempeh and tofu helps children stay alert throughout the afternoon. Good carbohydrates include whole grains, cereals, and breads. With a little planning, it’s easy to prepare the healthy and appealing lunches children will want to eat.