Observations from a School Lunch with My Kids - and the Cook Manager

Today is the deadline for entries for the “Eat Lunch with Your Kids” contest. Thanks to all of you who have sent such terrific stories about your school lunch with your sons and daughters. If you haven't sent us your entry, please do so today -- or you’ll miss your chance to win a one-year supply of Organic Valley milk and much more!

Although I’m not allowed participate in the contest, I did commit to eating lunch at school with my twin eight-year-olds. And taking pictures and writing about it. So two weeks ago, I packed their lunches (as I usually do) and planned to meet them at 12:00 sharp in the school cafeteria -- only they would be eating Annie's organic, whole-wheat macaroni and cheese with peas; Gala apples; Minneola tangerines; local carrots; and organic lemonade, and I would be eating:

  • Chicken Teriyaki Dippers
  • Seasoned Rice
  • Bread Sticks
  • Asian Coleslaw Salad
  • Fruit Choices
  • Fortune Cookie
  • Choice of 2%, skim. or chocolate-skim milk

As much as I love meeting my girls for lunch (when I’m at their school, they treat me like a celebrity -- and I know this won’t always be the case, so for now, I cherish it!), I was not looking forward to eating something called "Chicken Teriyaki Dippers." But I was determined to do it, because, well, many of you have dined on something similar for this contest. So I got through the morning, summoned my courage, and made it to the cafeteria a few minutes early.

There was no one in line yet, so I snapped a few photos, chatted it up with the lunch ladies, and was about to go find my girls, when I was approached by a woman who looked like she was in charge. Indeed she was. The “cook manager” -- her official title -- asked me why I was taking pictures of the food. I smiled and introduced myself, and told her I was going to eat lunch and write about it for a food website called Simple, Good and Tasty.

And then she winced. Subtly, but obviously, this pained expression of defensiveness crossed her eyes and stiffened her mouth for the briefest of instants. Quickly, she regained control and put her “I’m the boss” face back on; but her reaction made me pause. Was there something about my expression or my body language that signaled my disapproval of what she was serving for lunch that day? I silented reminded myself not to be judgmental, readjusted my attitude, and tried again.

So I asked her to tell me about their recent efforts -- publicized on the school’s web site -- to participate in the farm-to-school movement. She nodded and told me that they can and do occasionally prepare dishes there, in the cafeteria, that utilize fresh, local produce. “We’ve served local rutabagas, squash and sweet potatoes,” she said. Then she glanced over her shoulder, as if to make sure no one else was listening, and added, “But they didn’t eat them. They don’t like the food that’s good for them.” To further her point, she said they get specially baked organic rolls from a local bakery, but they have to keep refining the recipe because the kids won’t eat them if they’re too “heavy.” Gradually, the rolls have gotten lighter and whiter to meet the demands of their picky diners. This year, they also added to their menu grass-fed, all-beef hotdogs from Thousand Hills Cattle Company, but the kids don’t like them either. “They prefer Oscar Mayer instead,” she sighed.

SoJo with her mac'n'cheeseSoJo with her mac'n'cheeseI asked her if there was a list of ingredients for the foods they were serving that day. She went into the kitchen and brought back the labels from three of the dishes: the chicken, the rice, and the coleslaw dressing. Now it was my turn to wince; take a look at these ingredients:

Chicken “Dippers” with Teriyaki Sauce:

Chicken breast with rib meat, water, teriyaki sauce (soy sauce, sugar, water, distilled vinegar, modified food starch, pineapple juice concentrate, soybean oil, caramel color, xantham gum, garlic powder, sodium benzoate, spice and natural flavors), vegetable protein product (soy protein concentrate, zinc oxide, niacinamide, ferrous sulfate, copper gluconate, vitamin A palmitate, calcium pantothenate, thiamine mononitrate (b-1), pyridoxine hydrochloride (b-6), riboflavin (b-2), and cyanocobalamin (b-12), seasoning (corn syrup solids, brown sugar, salt, dextrose, vinegar powder (maltodextrin, modified corn starch, dried vinegar), garlic powder, onion powder, chicken type flavor (hydroloyzed corn gluten, autolyzed yeast extract, partially hydrogenated soybean and cottonseed oil, thiamine hydrochloride, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylated, sodium phosphate

Vegetable Fried Rice:
Water, rice, soy sauce (water, wheat, soybean, salt, alcohol to retain freshness
), onion, carrot, corn, red bell pepper, sugar, corn oil, dehydrated green onion, sesame oil, disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate

Coleslaw “Dressing” (Maruchan Ramen Noodles):
Noodles -- Enriched wheat flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine mononitrate, riboflavin, folic acid), vegetable oil (contains one or more of the following: canola, cottonseed, palm) Preserved by TBHQ, contains less than 1% of: salt, soy sauce, potassium carbonate, sodium (mono, hexameta, and/or poly) phosphate, sodium carbonate, turmeric
Soup Base -- Salt, contains less than 1% of monosodium glutamate (MSG), hydrolyzed corn, wheat and soy protein, sugar, dehydrated vegetables (garlic, onion, chive), dehydrated soy sauce, caramel color, spices, beef extract, yeast extract, maltodextrin, vegetable oil (palm), disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, natural flavor, lactose

So much for Michael Pollan’s advice to not eat anything with more than five ingredients, or with ingredients you can’t pronounce.

If I were a food critic, I suppose I would tell you that the taste and texture of the chicken, supplied by Pierre Foods in Cincinnati, reminded me of fake chicken -- you know, the soy product that’s been manufactured to resemble chicken. The rice, from Schwann’s Food Service in Marshall, Minnesota, was soggy, and if not for the generous inclusion of high-sodium soysauce, would have been flavorless. But the coleslaw was a different story. It was made right there in the school’s kitchen with fresh cabbage as the main ingredient. It was crunchy and tasty. But also quite salty, and it wasn’t until later that I found out why:  the seasoning was the dry, powdered contents of multiple packages of ramen noodles, each containing 890 milligrams of sodium per serving (that’s 37% of the minimum daily requirement for an adult!), much of it in the form of monosodium glutamate, e.g. MSG. (This would explain why I felt light-headed, tingly and a bit spacey for the rest of the afternoon.)

I also liked the breadstick, even though it looked more like half of a hotdog bun and was pretty light on the whole grains. And I liked that there was plenty of real butter to spread on it. I mentioned this to the cook manager when she came to my table to check on me. She seemed happy that I noticed, smiled, and said, “Well, it’s not Hope [butter], but it is real.”

I’m not a food critic, though; I’m a mom. And as a mom, these are the observations that had the most impact on me the day that I ate lunch with my girls:

  1. Lunch is very rushed. These children had 20 minutes total to get their food, their "spork," their napkin; punch in their account number into the keypad; find a place to sit; socialize with friends; eat their food; separate their trash into three bins -- organics, compost and garbage; and line up to return to their classroom. WIth such little time, food is jammed into mouths, barely chewed, and swallowed without tasting, savoring, or appreciating. Or not eaten at all and thrown into the compost bin. I can’t tell you how many times I have picked up my girls from school at the end of the day and listened to them complain about how hungry they are because they didn’t have time to eat. Sure enough, the lunches that I painstakingly packed for them that morning are still in their reusable plastic containers -- with only a few bites taken out of them.

  2. Lunch is a missed opportunity for learning about food, and not just where it comes from, or how it nourishes your body, but even the more basic lesson of how to actually eat it. As Jamie Oliver complained in the first episode of his TV series Food Revolution, kids can't be expected to learn to eat with forks and knives if they are only given plastic “sporks." And what about proper mealtime manners, such as: don’t talk with your mouth full, put your napkin in your lap, don’t use your fingers? At most school cafeterias, there is no attempt to introduce or reinforce what proper mealtime behavior looks like.

  3. Fast food is better than school food when it comes to taste and quality. Ugh! It pains me to write that, but it is true. This article from USA Today tells the complete story.

  4. The cook manager is a valiant foot solider in the fight for better school lunches. I really respect the job she does with the resources she is given. But she/we need more generals to make the comprehensive changes that most of us agree are so desperately needed. Why are school administrators, for instance, so reluctant to shake things up and demand better from their suppliers, their funders and their government? And why aren’t more parents insisting that they do so, as well?

  5. Finally, there are those who would say that teaching kids about what to eat and how to eat it is a parent’s job, not the school’s. And it is up to the parent to provide a nutritious lunch for her children even if the school can’t or won't. I agree, to a point. I do believe that parents are the primary influence in their child’s life. But when Hillary Clinton wrote It Takes a Village: And Other Lessons Children Teach Us, she argued that a society of educators, policymakers, and activists can also strongly influence the wellbeing of a child, and that it is our collective responsibility to make sure the next generation is well cared-for. I would propose that providing all children with delicious and nutritious school lunches will go a long way towards accomplishing that objective.

Shari Manolas Danielson is editorial director at Simple, Good and Tasty. Her last piece for SGT was Five Food Stories: Which One is an April Fools' Hoax? You can write to her at