Healthy School Lunches
By: Chef Cristian Feher
We would all line up in single file outside of a zinc roof shanty on the property of our private school. We would kick dirt at each other, wrestle and laugh as the line moved closer. The sweet smell of corn empanadas bubbling in oil was intoxicating. At the end of the line I would hand the lunch lady $10 bolivares and choose between beef empanadas, cheese empanadas or arepas (fried corn cakes - a Venezuelan staple) with fried plantains, and black beans. On Fridays we got creole chicken stew on white rice and you could wash it down with an ice-cold “Chicha” (think of a rice pudding milkshake). We all sat along a white parapet underneath bamboo and banana trees, swinging our feet playfully while we enjoyed our lunch in the warm sun. Those who did not buy their lunch enjoyed gourmet boxed lunches prepared by their moms or housekeepers. Hot thermos stuffed with seafood paella, potato gnocci, lasagna, shredded beef in tomato caper sauce and beef tongue in wild mushroom sauce with parsley, garlic and mashed potato were not unusual. Most of my school mates were of European descent - as are many Venezuelans - and most had housekeepers or moms who were very good cooks. Our schoolyard lunch hour could rival any modern day fine food show. We were very happy kids, we were all friends, we all played together and we instituted a very intricate food swapping system to add further spice to our already-eclectic selection of lunch items.
My family moved to Toronto when I was 8 years old. My first week in the 3rd grade was rough to say the least. I didn’t speak English. The other kids did not speak Spanish. I sat by myself in a lunch room and did my best to be invisible. The kids eyed me suspiciously from a distance. There was no sunshine. There were no banana plants. There wasn’t much laughter. The building, with it’s antiseptic smell, seemed cold and impersonal. I found it interesting that they all pulled out the same exact peanut butter and jelly sandwich, out of the same exact brown paper bag and drank the same exact boxed juice. A few had cans of soda. For a moment I wondered if they were robots or android children from some not too distant future. I warily spun the top off my hot food thermos and quietly began to eat my Hungarian style paprika chicken w/ spatzle dumplings. It didn’t take long after the name-calling and insults about my food stinking for me to start bringing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with boxed juice in a paper bag. Not because I liked them, but so that the kids would leave me alone during lunch. I missed my three course lunches, but it was better than being called names and better than having Cheetos thrown at me. Canadian kids were different - actually, they were all the same, and they loathed anything that was different. My saving grace that month was my implementation of “jail house rules” briefly mentioned to me by my cool uncle Luis before I left for Canada - after being punched in the stomach and ridiculed in front of everybody by the school bully I proceded to choke him to within an inch of his life. Things turned around for me after that and I started to make friends.
Today, as a dad, this life experience has become very valuable. And I’m happy to share with you a little guide for your kids’ school lunches. Let’s keep the “jail house rules” to ourselves.
Unless your kid goes to private school - where they would be more likely to bring a more diverse variety of lunch items or eat at a good cafeteria - they are probably part of a public school lunch-bag-syndicate, or paper-bag-militia, equipped with quarters for the vending machine. So in hopes of not getting them extricated by their comrades for having something healthy, smelly or different, I will give you a list of foods that will meet their nutritional needs without forcing them into the 12:15 witness protection program.
Lunch items to avoid: Unless you hate your kid, or feel that Smelly McStinkerson suits him better than his original name, you should first avoid foods with strong aromas. Remember that most kids are used to a few basic lunch time smells like; citrus fruit, banana, fried starch and processed meats. Anything outside of that realm might attract negative attention. Sulphur-smelling foods like broccoli, asparagus, cabbage, cauliflower, and eggs are not a good idea. Alike, real cheeses, fragrant broths, tomato sauce and garlicky sauces are “stinky” as far as most chicken-nugget-eaters are concerned. Sushi - again, unless they’re in a private school, I can think of about ten Asian inspired nicknames right now off the top of my head.
There are other foods that you don’t want to send you kids to school with just because they’re simply unhealthy - which just happens to be all of the popular choices you see in schools nowadays. White bread, anything with high fructose corn syrup (it’s in almost anything sweet), sugary fruit juices, diet drinks, sodas, processed cheese and cracker trays loaded with preservatives. Chicken nuggets, etc. Remember how I mentioned how friendly, happy and cooperative Venezuelan kids were? All of our food just happened to be organic and hardly any of it contained sugar, let alone high fructose corn syrup. It was all very healthy, contained a good amount of protein and even had vegetables. It was either cooked at home, or prepared by a lunch cook with all natural ingredients. Now, think about your kid trying to study while on the tail end of a sugar-crash. Or jittery from all the caffeine and chemicals he drank. Or overweight from all the high fructose corn syrup. Or dizzy from dehydration. Or irritable from improper nutrition altogether. What your kids eat at school makes a huge difference in their health, mood and progress.
School lunches at the cafeteria have improved over time, but are still lacking. Many of the cafeteria items still contain lots of preservatives (as in fried foods like nuggets, frozen meats, or fish sticks), processed carbohydrates (as in bread sandwiches and pastas) and high fructose corn syrup (as in anything that tastes sweet). So unless your kid is informed enough to make healthy choices and avoid the pitfalls of healthy cafeteria eating, you’re better off to pack their lunch.
In my personal opinion, a lot of these symptoms your kids exhibit are due to lack of proper nutrition. The dangerous part is when some half-witted, unqualified charlatan “counselor” then looks at your kid, scratches his head, makes tome ticks on a worksheet, gets them labeled with some bogus acronym and your kid now gets put on dangerous, mind-altering drugs, and there goes his future as a bright, healthy person. But this is a whole subject to discuss in a different article.
Lunch items you should pack your kid: There are healthy ways to provide your kid with proper nutrition while still maintaining his social status in school. Just think home-made. Make the chicken strips yourself using all organic ingredients, use whole wheat breads and fill sandwiches with organic sandwich meats, natural cheeses and even last night’s roast chicken, turkey or steak dinner makes a delicious sandwich. Use whole wheat pastas or low carb pastas. If you MUST give them something sweet, make it fresh fruit. They should only have cane sugar (and make it an AFTER school snack) You should avoid high fructose corn syrup all together. All-natural granola bars are a really good replacement for chocolate bars. Organic rice chips and vegetable chips are a good substitute for fried empty-calorie potato chips. Gluten free pizza dough or pizza crusts are now more readily available at your local natural food store (or you can venture to make it yourself). Pizza looks like pizza, and can be eaten cold. But you can put really good, healthy stuff on your kid’s slice of pie and no one will know the difference.
I mention a lot of organic foods simply because they are free of preservatives and are produced naturally with the purpose of providing nutrition for your body - not to last longer on a shelf and have a higher potential of financial return as most conventional foods today are manufactured for (at the expense of actual nutrition). And there are many studies out there that point towards autism and poor nutrition. Although your child may not be autistic, the food they eat may affect them more than you think.
You can keep your kids healthy and happy by feeding them right. And although it may require you to put a bit more effort, or to spend a bit more money than you would like, it will be worth it when they grow up and become successful in life. It’s hard enough for kids today to assure they will have a bright future - drugs, people labeling them with false “disorders”, bigger classrooms and less funded schools - but you can do a lot by making sure they have the nutrition and energy to power through their challenges and obstacles, while staying under the “stinky-food-name-calling” radar and keeping their original last names!
If you need to hire a personal chef to provide your family with proper nutrition, I’m here to help. Please visit my website at www.tampabaychef.com or email me with your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.