school lunches

Raising Better Eaters?

Love, love me do (Photo:Innovation Diaries)

"Gross," said my middle-schooler. "Radish salad."

She was checking out the school lunch menu and opted to pack. I let my kids buy school lunch only once a week, mostly because there are three of them and I'm cheap, but also because such nutritional bonanzas as "French Toast Sticks," industrially-produced "Chicken Tenders," and possibly-downed-cow "BBQ Riblets" are best enjoyed in moderation. The Bellevue School District has actually made a concerted effort to offer healthier food, offering more whole grains and genuine vegetables (as opposed to French fries), and axing corn dogs, to my children's dismay. On the April menu, I even discovered "locally-grown peas"! All great news--if the kids will eat it.

Therein lies the rub.

What percentage of Bellevue middle-schoolers buying lunch today will dig into that radish salad? I imagine the same percentage that would dig into it at home. In my house, that would be Zero.

A recent Wall Street Journal article asked whether French children eat better than American children. The answer--as you might expect whenever the French are held over our heads--was Yes. They eat a greater variety of food, including vegetables, and almost half of them eat the recommended daily amount of fruits and vegetables, as opposed to American children, who hover at 10%, even counting the ubiquitous and nutritionally-empty French fry. What do the French do differently? The author of the article suggests a few factors:

  1. Early exposure to variety.
  2. A single menu for all (i.e., no "kids' foods"). Both teachers and students ate the same meals at school, with no lunches from home.
  3. No vending machines.

For more info, the curious can check out Karen Le Billon's book French Kids Eat Everything, which I just added to my to-read pile.

The French may not have the market cornered on early exposure to variety. A friend told me of the year she spent with her three daughters in Japan. She ordered them, for politeness' sake, to eat everything they found in their school lunch, and they obeyed, coming home with tales of little sea creatures and eyes in their food. Were they cured of any pickiness? Absolutely.

I'm not so ambitious that I need my kids eating sea creatures, eyeballs and all. I'd settle for them trying my butternut squash.

But all is not lost for American children. The other night my illustrator and I were invited to Cougar Ridge Elementary's "Second Grade Read-In" to share our children's book Mia and the Magic Cupcakes. As you might guess, luscious cupcakes play a big role in the story, but the overall theme is learning to eat a variety of foods. Afterward we polled the children, asking for a show of hands to see who had tried and liked some of the foods Mia tried. Broccoli was the hands-down winner, but every vegetable got at least one vote, including the lowly rutabaga (now there's a mom offering early exposure!).

Let's make a pact this spring--we'll hit the Farmers Market with children in tow and try one new vegetable every week! If it's new to the whole family, everyone can have the adventure of trying it. What will it be for your family, when the Market opens on Thursday, May 10? Dandelion greens? Mustard? Pea vines? Turnips or kohlrabi? Share your stories with us--we'd love to hear.