Thursday, April 29, 2010


I am noticing that a good number of school food service directors, especially the younger ones, are registered dietitians, licensed dieticians and nutritionist, or have a Masters degree or Ph.D in nutrition.  I’m not surprised.  If I were a parent with a child in a school, I’d want my food service director to have a degree in childhood nutrition.

Yet, it peeves me that we need someone with a special degree to tell us what we should and shouldn’t eat.  Up until recently, that person with all those degrees didn’t exist, and our mothers were the experts in the food department.  A lot has changed! 

I’m thinking of going back to school to get a Masters in Nutrition – I feel the pressure to know more about nutrition so that I can legitimately answer questions about the food served at my school.  I really wish I could just focus on serving good home cooked food.   

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Searching For Better Products

Last Friday, I invited a sales rep of a line of tomato products to do a tasting of his sauces in my school kitchen.  I met him at a food show while looking at the ingredients listed on a can of tomato puree at his booth.
I invited everyone in the kitchen to participate in the tasting and listen to the sales pitch.  A few people were skeptical.  Why change what we currently have?                     

Their pasta sauce tasted great straight from the can, slightly chunky, perfumed with onion and garlic, and made with carrot puree for a touch of natural sweetness.  One person who wanted to hold her nose while sampling the sauce (due to the mention of the carrot puree) said she liked it.

Not only am I happy with the quality, taste, and ingredients, this line is priced about the same as the current sauces we use made with corn syrup and a host of other undesirable ingredients!   

I have a long list of things I would like to replace in the school kitchen.  I know many of of these items won’t be as easy as substituting one canned good for another.  But there are surely some decent products out there (like this line of tomato sauces) in the giant warehouses of the national food supplier my school uses.  Finding those items is the challenge.  It occurs to me that maybe I should make the salesperson representing this supplier work a little harder for his commission.   

Sunday, April 25, 2010


I’ve slowed down on blogging over the last few weeks.  I was trying to put an entry in every weekday, but I’m afraid that was just a little too ambitious.  Brave New Lunch is just over a month old, but I’m starting to think I need to come up with a plan for content if I want this blog to be informative and interesting for readers and fun for me to write.  

I started this blog after reading Fed Up with Lunch: The School Lunch Project. I wanted to respond to Mrs. Q’s op-edit posts since I have an insider’s view of things.  I’ve written a couple of guest blogs for Mrs. Q (Pizza Perspectives, Ingredients, and Thaw-and-Serve) and will continue to write them every once in a while.     

My plan for my blog, at least for the next month, is to try to add new types posts to the blog – short interviews with people involved with school lunch and simple, wholesome recipes.    

This Tuesday I will attend a Massachusetts Farm to School “Shoptalk” conference, which will be my starting point for potential interviewees.  A few public school food service directors will give presentations about how they successfully implemented local farm produce programs in their school.   

I will still be continuing to work on the Behind The Kitchen Door Series, which are blog pieces about the different part of my school kitchen.  I plan on writing about our snack service this week. 

Please leave a comment if you have any ideas or suggestions for Brave New Lunch!  

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

In time for Earth Day, my kitchen began rolling out the school's composting program.  While we don’t have a composting facility on school grounds, a local company, Save That Stuff, will take away our food waste (and paper products and biodegradable plastic cups) and compost it for us.       

We began the testing phase of the program last week.  Beginning with our middle school lunch, the kitchen asked students and staff to separate food waste from trash.  I stood in front of the bins to direct traffic for the first three days.  Everyone has caught on by now.  This week we introduced it to our upper school lunch.  Eventually, most of the school will participate, and we will have enough waste to make it worth it to Save That Stuff to come haul away the waste.  At that point our school will have to switch over to using biodegradable garbage bags instead of the regular black bags in the picture above.  I’m hoping that we will be saving at least 60% of cafeteria waste from going to a landfill.  

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Where Does One Begin?

A lot of people want to do something about their children's school lunch and have asked me, “where does one begin?”  

It’s a tough question.  Every school is different.  Every situation is different.  However, drawing on my limited experience, I have a few suggestions about the first steps you can take. 

Read the Rethinking School Lunch Guide.  I wrote a recent blog piece about last week.  Even if you don’t believe everything in it, it will give you a picture of school lunch and all the players involved in the making of it.  It gave me a surprisingly accurate description of the many oobstacles I’ve encountered as I’ve worked on changing my school lunch.     

Gather as much information as you can about your school lunch.  Is it thaw-and-serve or cooked on premises?  Who writes the menus and orders food?  Are ingredient and nutrition info available?  Befriending your school lunch ladies or managers would be helpful.  See if they have any information they might be able to offer you in your quest to improve school lunch.

Find other likeminded individuals.  If you are unhappy about school lunch, there are probably others around you that feel the same way.  With other parents, students, and staff, you may have a critical mass to set up a meeting with decision-makers at your school. 

Friday, April 16, 2010

Kids Like Asparagus!

Earlier this month, I reported that my school cafeteria is featuring asparagus as the item of this month.  Despite my concern that it wouldn’t go over well with kids, it worked out just fine.  Not every student took asparagus off of our main meal line, but some did and said they liked it!  We’ll be serving again soon.  

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Rethinking School Lunch

Let's get rid of this stuff!

If you have been inspired to do something about school lunch and want to learn more about the issues related to changing your school lunch program, start by reading the Rethinking School Lunch Guide.  Available for download online and completely free, I turned to it when I first started working in my school kitchen.  Trying to “rethink” my school lunch without much guidance, it became my go-to-source for advice.  The Rethinking School Lunch Guide comes from the Center for Ecoliteracy.  
The Guide has two basic premises:

1. Frozen, preprocessed, and canned foods in lunch are unacceptable.  We should adopt an alternative, a "farm-to-school model, which provides fresh food from local, sustainable family farms.  Meals are prepared using fresh, seasonal, sustainably grown produce and products from local and regional sources.” 

2. The idea that lunch is an isolated meal without relevance to the rest of the school day or the world is also unacceptable.  The guide emphasizes an "integrated curriculum approach. It connect students to their food source through meals and field trips, improve the nutritional content and quality of food in schools, and help local farmers remain economically viable."  

With these two ideas, it discusses change in the context of ten interrelated subjects: Food Policy; Curriculum Integration; Food and Health; Finances; Facilities Design; The Dining Experience; Professional Development; Procurement; Waste Management; Marketing and Communications

Full of advice from people affecting change and sources for more information, the guide covers all the possible topics I could think of that are needed for change.  When I presented my head-of-school with a proposal for changing lunch after I started working at my school, I summarized the guide in four pages and turned each topic into question-and-answer format specific to the issues of my school. 


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Naysayers

They are in too many school kitchens.  They want everything to stay exactly as it’s always been.  It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t make sense, or if there’s an easier way to do things, a more logical, cheaper, healthier way, the answer’s always no.

I’m so glad in the last episode of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, he was able to get rid of the naysayer in Rod the radio host.  I wonder if he does the same to Alice in the school kitchen.  I sure want to see how he manages that!    

Monday, April 12, 2010

Behind The Kitchen Door Series: Dishwashing and Reusable Glasses

When I first started working at my school kitchen, we were already using reusable plates, some utensils, and coffee cups.  I advocated for a few other items that were added this year - soupspoons, soup bowls, and glasses.  It makes financial sense – with 500 people going through the cafeteria each day, the amount we spend on paper cups easily justifies the cost of glasses and washing them.  The biggest problem to adding any more reusable items to our load is space and labor.  If one or two members of the kitchen crew are out sick one day, we have disposable items ready.    

Right now only the last of our five lunch periods uses glasses.  We have ten minutes in between each lunch period, and that’s simply not enough time to deal with glasses while setting up for the next meal.  During our last lunch, using glasses saves about 150 paper cups each day.  That’s 750 each week or 27,000 for the school year.

While I'm no expert on environmental science, the environmental cost of running our commercial dishwasher a few extra times each day to save 150 paper cups from a landfill makes sense to me.  We use a dishwashing system that "reduces environmental impact" according to the company's website.  Our dishwasher system technician happened to stop by today so I asked him for some details and learned quite a few things: the detergent we use is low in phosphates and BPA, and the system minimized water use.  (In fact, speaking to him I realized I should learn more about my kitchen's dishwashing system and its environmental impact.  I will put up a post about the details later.)   

Getting glasses into our cafeteria wasn’t as easy.  People objected to the extra labor it would involve.  To make this possible, I worked with five teachers on lunch duty, one for each day of the week, to set out the glasses and supervise the collection of them at the end of lunch.  With teacher help, our kitchen needed only to run the glasses through the dishwasher and cart them away.  That’s about ten minutes of extra work for one person. 

Our commercial dishwasher isn’t like a home dishwasher.  One load of dishes through our commercial dishwasher takes less than a minute to wash and sanitize.  Dishes come out of the machine hot but still damp, and they need to sit for about 5 minutes to air dry.  Space is limited when we run the dishwasher load after load.  Each day we go through dozens of loads.


Sunday, April 11, 2010

Behind The Kitchen Door Series: Dishwashing and Reusable Glasses

Though not a glamorous topic, dishwashing is a big piece of the puzzle to improving school lunch.  Cooking from scratch uses lots of pots and pans, and more of the kitchen's resources need to go towards washing those items.  For example, replacing a frozen pre-panned mac-and-cheese requires us to boil lots of pasta and make a cheese sauce using pots and pans that we need to wash at the end of the day. It’s a lot harder than dishing out the thaw-and-serve version in foil pans.

My school used a huge chunk of our equipment budget this year purchasing
 a new commercial dishwasher when our previous one broke down.

Time is a big issue. Someone’s time needs to go toward washing dishes instead of serving or preparing lunch. Another concern is space. With increased use of pots and pans, there needs to be enough space in the dish washing area to hold the pans before and after they go through the dishwasher.

In an effort to be more environmentally friendly, my school kitchen stopped using paper plates, foam bowls, and plastic utensils.  Now there's even more dishwashing and little space for it. We’re bulging at the seams.

A school nearby recently unveiled a new and spacious kitchen that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars. I hear that their salad prep room compares in size to that of my school’s entire kitchen. But that new kitchen lacks a commercial dishwasher. This suggests that they produce tons of trash with the daily use of disposable plates and utensils and that they aren’t aiming to produce their food in-house, which usually warrants the expense of a commercial dishwasher.

On Monday: some pictures of our dishwashing area in action and more about how my school switched from disposable dining-ware to reusable stuff.

The Behind the Kitchen Door Series is a collection of pieces about the different component that make up my school kitchen. The reason I’m writing these pieces is to shed some light on how my school is making improvements to our school lunch. I covered the salad bar last week in two posts, The Salad Bar and More About the Salad Bar.  Next week I'll write about the soup bar.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

About Brave New Lunch

Brave New Lunch is one month old today!  I’m very happy writing this blog, and I hope all you out there are enjoying it.

Close-up of bulgur salad with tomatoes and green beans on the salad bar.

I hadn’t revealed much information about myself on the blog, but now I’m going to relax my anonymity policy a bit.  I don’t identify with Ms. A, the name on this blog.  Also, I plan on writing more specifically about issues in my area instead of being completely vague.

My enthusiasm for making changes in my school cafeteria naturally waxes and wanes over the course of the school year.  Right now it is at an extreme high.  I’ve been encouraged by all the concern about school lunch.  Through this blog, I have also met a couple of people that have given me some great ideas about how I might lead my kitchen in a better direction next year.

Thanks for reading my blog!

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Weeks Worth of Private Chef Meals

 Baked chicken topped with tomato and cheddar,  zucchini, corn and black bean salad, Mexican rice

As some of you readers know, I moonlight as a private chef.  After a day of running my school kitchen, I spend about 2 and a half hours cooking for a group of twenty-five adults.  I hope one day my school kitchen can produce some of the items I make as a private chef.  Here are some pictures of what I made this week as a private chef.
Roasted chili spiced salmon, cauliflower spinach and tomatoes, Israeli couscous
 Sloppy Joes, whole wheat penne sald with zucchini red onion and cherry tomatoes, steamed green beans
Spaghetti with a portabello tomato sauce, broccoli tossed with olive oil, garlic and chili flakes, lentil salad

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Food show

Yesterday, I attended my first food show since I began working for my school.  Held by a major food supplier to showcase their food products, it had booth after booth of food for all walks of the food service industry from restaurants to schools.

I’m very grateful the show did not focus on items for schools.  One of the first booths I stopped by focused on just that.  The school “specialist” welcomed me to try a bag of corn chips and said that an easy way to serve them is to snip off the top of the bag and fill it with chili and shredded cheese.  I passed on a sample of that and the rest of the other deep fried snacks. 

Overwhelmed by all the booths and foods around me, I almost didn’t stop at one featuring canned tomatoes products.  I’m glad I did.  The booth had samples of tomato sauces made without corn syrup and free of artificial preservative - just what I’ve been looking for.  Not only does it taste good, it's within my school’s budget.  I plan to switch to this brand as soon as we run out of product in my school kitchen.   

The selection of items that suited my school’s needs impressed me - I walked away with about six items I will follow up on.  However, none of those items came from booths designed for schools.  Those school booths reminds me what’s wrong with school meals – all the prepackaged processed junk.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution

I was on vacation when Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution came on TV, and I just watched the first episode this week.  I bet most of you are watching it, but if not, I highly recommend it.  As someone who works in a school kitchen, I am blown away that the challenges of improving school lunch featured on Jamie’s show are very similar to that my school, even though I work for a small, independent private school.  I bet it’s similar to most schools across America. 

I recognize the school freezer packed to gills with boxes of precooked foods like chicken nuggets.  I also recognize the attitude from lunch ladies, the resistance to change, and the skepticism of bringing in fresh food to replace precooked, processed foods.

For those of you who haven't seen the inside of a school kitchen, here's your chance.       

Monday, April 5, 2010

Item of the Month: Asparagus

I am writing the menu for the month of April and picked asparagus as the item of the month.  My school cafeteria has never served asparagus before.  It’s in season, abundant, and fairly inexpensive.  I’ve heard that asparagus is not a favorite among kids, but we shall see.   It will go in the salad bar as a cold dish this week for our last two lunch periods for middle and high school students.

I will toss the asparagus with oil, salt, and pepper before I put it in the oven.  Roasting it at 500 degrees for about ten minutes, the asparagus will be cooked through and maintain a nice bright green color on the salad bar if served the same day.   In a week, our kitchen will serve asparagus as a side dish on our main meal line.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Which Is A Better Cookie? Revealed

In the last post, Which is a Better Cookie?, I asked readers to look at two cookie ingredient lists.  One is advertised as wholesome, the other made no such claim.  I asked readers to pick out the cookie they would choose as more wholesome. 

Based on the ingredient lists, both could have been advertised as whole grain.  The first ingredient in cookie #1 is whole wheat flour while in cookie #2 is whole grain oats.  

Cookie #1: Chocolate Chip Cookies

Cookie #1 is a chocolate chip cookie that’s labeled on the packaging as whole grain.  Just because it’s made with whole grains does not make it healthy.  Partially hydrogenated oil is one of the main ingredient, and that's not good for your health.  Also, I wonder why the cookie contains five ingredients listed as milk replacements instead of milk.  It might appeal to schools where many students are lactose intolerance.  It's also possible that the milk replacements are more stable ingredients and help extend the shelf life of the cookies.

Cookie #2: Oatmeal Cookies

Cookie #2 is a oatmeal cookie that doesn’t make any claim to being better for you than other cookies.  I recognize most ingredients except, as a few of you have pointed out, THBQ.  I looked it up on Wikipedia.  It’s a preservative that's possibly hazardous to your health.   

The moral of this ingredient list comparison is that you shouldn’t trust any claims on packaging. Both cookies could have claimed they’re whole grain.  Look at ingredient lists and make sure you recognize items listed and are happy with what you see. 

Another significant consideration is how the cookie looks and tastes.  If it doesn’t look or taste good, no one will eat it, even if it is made with decent ingredients.  Both cookies look about the same.  However, cookie #1 tastes like a nutrition bar studded with imitation chocolate bits– it’s pretty awful.  Cookie #2 tastes just like what I expected for a prepackaged hard oatmeal cookie.  Not great, but it's still a cookie.  

Friday, April 2, 2010

Which Is A Better Cookie?

I came across two different cookies in our kitchen: One is advertised as a whole grain cookie “sure to make your students, and their parents, happy.”  The other is a normal cookie sold by a major food company. 

Cookie #1

Cookie #2

Can you figure out which is which based on the two ingredient lists?  How do you feel about each of the ingredient lists and which cookie would you pick?  Please leave comments!  I’ll have a “reveal” post tomorrow.