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October 25, 2014

Why Getting Kids to Eat Healthier School Lunches Will Be a Slow Process

by Jessica Serdikoff

School lunches are being reformed nationwide, some more easily than others. The first time my mom brought whole wheat bread into our white-bread-loving abode, I think there was a near revolt. When I was sick, my mom practically had to force-feed me just a spoonful of yogurt, and if it wasn’t banana flavored Yoplait (no chunks of real fruit, please and thank you!), all hope was lost. In my high school health class I had to keep a food record, in which I counted a slice of apple cake (for breakfast!) as a serving of grains and a serving of fruit, and a heaping pile of French fries as a serving of vegetables.

As confidently as I now walk the halls of my local hospital for my dietetic internship, coaxing patients on antibiotics to eat yogurt twice a day and explaining to patients who have just had heart attacks why bacon is no longer such a good idea, I used to be a pretty normal kid when it came to food. And pretty normal kids don’t really like whole grains, yogurt (especially if you try to replace teaspoons of added sugar with chunks of fresh fruit!), and non-starchy vegetables. So what do they do when schools across the country are making radical changes to their lunch menus to adopt more healthful ingredients? They’re staging the only kind of revolt they know how to stage: they’re throwing it all away.

All of our hard work and good intentions are literally being tossed into the garbage, and one school district in Florida is determined to pull itself and its efforts back out. They plan to video tape their cafeteria trash cans to observe what parts of school lunches kids are throwing away, with the intent of finding a balance between what kids currently want to eat, and what is really good for them.

It isn’t that kids won’t eat healthy food in any way, shape or form. Sometimes the fix is as simple as changing the shape – like slicing apples – or texture – like serving falafel instead of hummus or whole chick peas, as the article points out. Whole wheat bread, plain or chunky yogurt – these are tough sells for kids who are used to Wonderbread and Gogurt, and you can’t expect their palates to change on a dime just because we think they ought to. Why not keep the white bread (for now), but make the pasta or pizza dough (which get covered in sauce and other ingredients) whole grain, as a first step? What if we investigated plate presentation to see if there were easy, relatively effortless ways of increasing plate appeal? How about we slowly reduce the sodium, rather than severely restrict it all at once?

Just as children need to be exposed to a new food 8, 10, even 15 times before they’ll consider trying it, they need time to get used to this new way of eating. I hated that whole wheat bread at first, and now I can’t get enough of it. My mom had the hardest time getting me to try yogurt, and now I eat it every morning. I still love a good slice of homemade apple cake and the occasional handful of really well done French fries, but I understand that they are once-in-a-while treats and not in general part of a nutritious diet. We can help our children learn to love food, good food, healthy food, but change doesn’t come overnight – especially when you’re only 10 years old.

What are your thoughts on the new guidelines for school lunches? Do you have children or know of children who are experiencing first-hand these new changes in action? What can we do to give our children good nutrition without alienating their relationship to food?

Jessica Serdikoff is the chief blogger behind Floptimism, a blog where Jessica shares deliciously inspiring recipes and tales of life as a nutrition student. Follow Floptimism on Facebook and Twitter