Herald Journal ColumnsOct. 31, 2005, Herald Journal

School lunches may rile parents


The taste, quality and quantity of school lunches can really get parents of school children riled up, sometimes even more than school sports and academics can.

Almost all children complain mightily about school cafeteria food even if they don’t think it’s so bad. Their peers expect it, so kids complain about it.

School lunches have changed over the years, though.

When I was in school, cooks used real butter and I loved it. I always had margarine at home, so the taste of real butter was a treat for me. These days, school cooks are cutting back on butter because it’s fattening.

They also are using less salt. Some kids in the Dassel-Cokato area have been bringing their own salt and pepper shakers to school to make up the difference.

The kitchen staff in most schools are actually good cooks. They want the food to taste good and be healthy at the same time. However, the huge volume of food that gets wasted at school drives them crazy.

During my first year of teaching in Michigan, the school cooks stomped up and down the aisles among the first and second graders’ tables in the lunchroom. Those cooks were so scary, whatever appetite the kids had, evaporated immediately under the cooks’ disapproving glare at the uneaten food on their plates. Some of the kids cried during every lunch.

I finally went to the principal and asked him to tell the cooks to stay away from the little kids while they ate. At least that eliminated the tears.

Elementary students still waste a lot of food, though.

The next thing school cooks tried was to make school lunches look and taste like fast food. They noticed that whenever kids had a choice, they filled up on nachos and junk food.

Many schools also have pop machines on the premises. Students often choose pop instead of milk. Before, they didn’t have a choice other than milk or water.

School officials are cracking down, however. They are eliminating “snack shacks” in schools and providing juice instead of pop.

Here is my advice for parents who are worried about their children’s school lunches:

• It is normal for children to eat smaller portions than adults.

• Children associate lunch time with “play time” because it is less structured than class time. They will eat only enough to take the edge off their hunger. The need to “play” in children is stronger than their need to feel “full,” as it is in adults.

Schools can ease this problem by not scheduling recess as soon as a child finishes eating. It is better to have the entire class sit together and wait for a lunch period to end before going to play at recess.

• If the child expects to have candy or snacks as soon as school is out, he will eat less at lunch. If parents restrict after-school snacks, the child will eat more because he knows he won’t eat again until supper.

• If a bully, teacher or cook is scaring your child during lunch, contact the principal. It doesn’t have to be that way.

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