It may taste good, but it’s actually healthy
Vail CO, Colorado
EAGLE ” Rita Rodriguez remembers the day french fries changed forever.
Back when she started cooking cafeteria lunches 15 years ago at Minturn Middle School, all-time classics like french fries and chicken nuggets were still dropped in big vats of oil just like the kids want them, like they do at a certain restaurant chain promoted by a flamboyant, red-haired clown.
Then one day, those chicken nuggets and french fries went in the oven instead of the fat, and there they would stay forever. There weren’t exactly riots, but you could say kids know what they like.
“They could tell the difference ” the kids noticed the change,” said Rodriguez, who now cooks at Brush Creek Elementary. “It took awhile to get used to, but it’s been like that for at least 10 years.”
So how else has cafeteria food changed in Eagle County over the years?
Slowly, snack by snack and one baked chicken nugget at a time, it’s finding new ways to become healthier. Schools have become painfully aware of America’s growing waistline, and district lunchrooms are trying to get kids eating healthier than they have in the past.
There’s still room to improve, though, and healthy alternatives to what kids are used to can come at a cost. Groundbreaking snacks without culinary poisons like high-fructose corn syrups or hydrogenated oils do exist, but many are too expensive to buy and sell in a school, said Ray Edel, food services director for the district.
And if you do load up schools with healthy food, will the kids eat it? Look at the full salad bar offered at 11 of the 14 schools here. It’s a healthy choice, certainly, but not many kids use it, and it actually loses the school district money, Edel said.
This highlights the fact that schools aren’t chain restaurants with big budgets ” they want to be healthy, but they also want to break even.
Back to that golden-brown chicken nugget. A big change in cafeteria food is what seems to be the growing science of imitating the fried foods that kids love ” without so much fat.
“Fried foods are no longer fried foods; they are flash cooked at high temperatures to simulate the old and unhealthy fried foods,” Edel said. “We then take these products and bake them.”
There is a certain amount of culinary deception needed to get kids eating healthier. You’ve probably noticed a new line of whole-grain breads that are being disguised as the gooey Wonderbread-like loaves that kids love stacked with American cheese.
The homemade pizzas that all the kids eat at school are made with low-fat mozzarella, and kids seem to like them just as much as something from Pizza Hut.
Milk cartons went on a diet a while back, dropping from 2 percent to 1 percent fat. And yes, they’re still available in chocolate and strawberry flavors, but many kids wouldn’t drink them at all if they just had plain, Edel said.
Recently, the very popular Flaming Hot Cheetos were replaced by the slightly less appealing, reduced-fat, baked versions. It wasn’t the most popular decision with kids, but they are healthier.
“It was kind of a big deal, but they still enjoy them,” Edel said.
In some cases, it’s not so much a switcheroo as a flat-out execution. For the past couple of years, Edel has been examining the snack shelves and taking out the worst offenders when it comes to calories, sugar and fat.
He points to the Big Ed ” two chocolate-chip cookies acting as the fat-filled bread for an ice-cream sandwich. That one bit the dust last year.
“Having an ice-cream cup that’s 110 calories is one thing, but eating the Big Ed, which is 460 calories, that kind of draws the line,” Edel said. “Slowly we are bringing in better products. I know the market is changing, and hopefully more quality products will become available.”
Kim Olson stands behind the cash register at Brush Creek Elementary as a second-grader holds out a couple of quarters. He wants some ice cream.
“How much did you eat?” Olson asks, and the child’s eyes look a little shifty.
“I ate enough,” he says.
Today, lunch was beef-and-cheese nachos, corn, salad, apple and milk. Students are encouraged to finish at least three of the five foods they have on their lunch plate before they can indulge in one of their prepackaged treasures, and after a quick inspection of his plate, it looks like he really did eat enough, and his ice cream is due.
Knowing that junk food is available, cafeteria management is often about control, especially in younger grades. Here, for the second-graders, it’s a return to that dinner-table scene you remember as a child, where your mother wouldn’t give you cake until you ate your brussels sprouts.
“They would just go dump their trays and fill up on junk,” Olson said. “So we have to monitor it.”
Meanwhile, kindergartner Zachary Dolan is eating a cheese sandwich made by his mother, Tracy, who’s visiting him in the cafeteria today. Sure, maybe school food is getting healthier, but she’d rather send him to school with a hard-boiled egg and some carrots.
“Even when he gets a little older, I probably won’t let him eat cafeteria food,” Dolan said. “I’d rather prepare his food. I want to know exactly what he’s eating.”
Here’s the sweeping question many people might ask: Why serve junk food at all?
Well, there’s a matter of relativity to examine ” there’s always something healthier and always something fattier than what you put on the shelf. Edel believes that while he has a responsibility to provide healthier alternatives, cafeterias are still in the food-service industry, and kids need to be given choices.
“Everything in moderation can be wonderful, and people should have choices if they want something or not,” Edel said. “Some parents give their children 50 cents every day to buy something, and there are many people who want these products.”
As your children get older, they’ll earn more freedom on what they can buy in the cafeteria.
Yes, your 6-year-old can buy a bag of Fritos ” but only the small bags. When they get older, they can buy those the Big Grabs if they choose. Your seventh-grader can buy an a-la-carte hamburger instead of what’s on the normal menu ” but not every day. The high school kids have the largest variety of lunches to choose from ” even Domino’s pizza ” but aren’t these kids headed to college soon?
They’ll definitely have choices there.