The Drevitches, Week 30: Cafeteria Lunch Takes a Healthy Challenge of Its Own

Filed under: Healthy Families Challenge

Chef Stefanie Jonathan Waxman

Chef Stefanie with special guest celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman. Credit: Courtesy Stefanie Devic

In the beginning, the kids brought lunch to school every day. And it was good.

Well, it was usually good.

But as Benjamin, now 10, and Natalie, now 8, got older, and more comfortable with their public school's cafeteria options, they started choosing school lunch more often. At some point last year, as they lined up for helpings of mac-and-cheese, hamburgers, chicken patties, chicken nuggets and, of course, Friday pizza, my wife, Lynn, and I began to worry about these high-sodium, high-fat, carb-loaded meals.

By the time we signed up for the Healthy Families Challenge this past fall, we had targeted school lunches as an area to improve for the kids, by encouraging them to take more and different lunches from home.

As it happened, we didn't have to do anything -- our school's principal and PTA shared our concerns and made the bold move of scrapping the old school lunch menu for a new one, devised in partnership with Wellness in the Schools, an organization committed to improving children's nutrition and fitness. I give real credit to the people that made this happen -- no doubt a challenge since all school meals and ingredients must reach certain protein and calorie targets, as well as come in within the cafeteria's food budget of about $1 per day, per child.

When the new menu came to the school, Benjamin, in his role as a Healthy Families participant, got himself a spot on the student committee charged with surveying peers and consulting with WITS visiting chef Stefanie Devic on new menu items.

"We're not trying to change everything," Devic said, "but our goal is to take out the bulk of the processed food." The school kitchen had been stocked with frozen meatballs, chicken nuggets and canned ravioli, as well as sugary, syrupy fruit cocktail. Now the cupboards hold fresh, whole fruit and, for protein, chicken on the bone, black beans and chickpeas -- which are generally cheaper options than frozen meat, too. Pasta pesto with chickpeas and black-bean-and-cheese quesadillas have been popular entrees, Devic says -- pesto is Benjamin's favorite -- and fresh chicken every Thursday, prepared Latin, Asian, barbecue or cacciatore style, has also been a hit. My kids never miss it.

Some changes are more subtle, and open to revision. For example, sacred pizza Fridays remain on the calendar, but the pizzas are now prepared on flatbread. And, borrowing a recipe from Rachael Ray, the kitchen changed its old mac-and-cheese recipe, and put broccoli in the dish. My kids hated it, and they weren't alone. So Devic moved the broccoli to the side of the plate, and now everyone's happy.

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The school has also dropped chocolate milk, a move that has raised controversy in other cafeterias across the country this year, but not in ours. The kids are now nudged to drink more water with lunch, and encouraged to bring refillable bottles to their tables. Parent volunteers sometimes help with refills.

There have also been changes to the salad bar. Cooked cauliflower and broccoli pieces have replaced raw broccoli bits -- "I don't even like raw broccoli," Devic says -- and kids can grab cups of specialty items like corn-and-bean salad or hummus, as well as ever-popular cucumbers and red peppers.

And, once a month, the cafeteria introduces new entrees during special Café Days, which have featured consultation and cooking from celebrity chef Jonathan Waxman of Manhattan's Barbuto restaurant. You may have seen him on Bravo's recent Top Chef Masters series.

Those Cafe Days are major topics at the student panel meetings. Devic told me, first of all, that Benjamin has been a diligent committee member, regularly surveying classmates about what they like and don't like about the new menu. The bottom line: They miss the old standbys, Stefanie said, and that's no surprise, but it doesn't mean they've rejected her new approaches.

"When they tell me, 'We want chicken patties back,' or hamburgers, I try to remind them why we don't have that here, and that those things are fine once in a while, but our school food is every day," and needs to be healthy, she said. She also talks to kids about concerns about how meats are processed, and about how whole pieces are "what chicken is supposed to look like," not nuggets.

One thing that hasn't changed -- chef Stefanie admits it can be a challenge for the kids to dig into a piece of chicken with their little plastic "sporks."

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