Can a New Cookbook Change the Way Our Kids Eat at School?

This antihunger organization says it has 100 recipes that meet USDA guidelines and fit school budgets—and that kids love too.

(Photo: Charlie Schuck/Getty Images)

Steve Holt writes about food for 'Edible Boston,' 'Boston Magazine,' 'The Boston Globe,' and other publications.

When sweeping school lunch reforms championed by First Lady Michelle Obama and several celebrity chefs took effect in 2012, the usual chorus of complaints from the right (government overreach, “food police,” etc.) was joined by griping from students and parents. Some said the healthier meals required by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 weren’t filling students up. Others said the meals were inedible and were getting thrown out en masse, though waste was likely happening prior to the reforms, as we reported in 2012.

Whatever the case, kids need to be eating their food at school, and this should help: Let’s Cook Healthy School Meals is a just-released cookbook full of delicious recipes that meet the new USDA standards and keep districts within budget. Officials from Project Bread, which published the cookbook, say the 100 “chef-designed and kid-tested” recipes will tempt students into eating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains while reducing salt and dairy fat.

“When the [new] standards came out, there was a lot of discussion about ‘we can't afford [it]; kids don’t like healthy food,’ ” says Ellen Parker, executive director for Project Bread. “Kids do like healthy food, but you have to make food that kids like. You have to follow up with them and ask, ‘How was that? How can we make that better?’ ”

This was the process through which the cookbook came to life. Seven years ago, Project Bread took up the task of improving school food as a way to make a dent in student hunger in Massachusetts, hiring chefs to train food-service workers to make tasty, nutritious meals. Incidentally, this was an approach the first lady championed in 2012 with the launch of the website ChefsMovetoSchools.com, which connects chefs with classrooms and lunchrooms. Project Bread's cookbook is the culmination of years of trial and error in making incremental changes in what children are eating at school. Parker says including students in the process was vital because, in the end, they are the consumers.

“We cook something,” she says, “and then we serve it. Then we ask the kids, ‘Did you like that?’ The chefs start to know what’s working. You have a repertoire of what’s popular and what’s not.”

Because kids were working closely with the chefs, rest assured this cookbook isn’t all sprouts and greens. The first recipe is called Awesome Sloppy Joe Epiphany (who doesn’t love sloppy joes?); the dish skillfully hides no fewer than six vegetables in the tasty, mushy goodness sandwiched in each hamburger bun. Another feature of the cookbook is that recipes maximize the use of commodity products school districts can purchase at a low cost from the federal government, so as to keep meals within budget.

But what good is such a cookbook in schools where untrained food-service workers simply warm up meals made by a large corporation? Parker concedes that this is a challenge but adds that not only are food-service companies making meals that don’t taste good, but staff members in the schools where Project Bread works want to be a part of making school food more palatable and nutritious for the kids they serve.

“Having a chef in the school really starts to change the culture,” she says. “There are a lot of people who really like to cook in schools. We have a secondary goal of elevating people and increasing their skill base. We want them to be better; we want them to be leaders. This is a tool that anybody in the country can use if they choose to do it.”

“It’s nothing really fancy,” she adds. “It’s pretty straightforward—all you need are some knife skills.”

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