When Chicago teacher Sarah Wu left her brown-bag lunch at home and had to eat the cafeteria food, a nutritional activist was born. Upset by the lack of fresh, healthy ingredients, she started blogging as “Mrs. Q,” eating the cafeteria’s offerings, photographing the trays, and commenting on their nutritional merits (or, rather, the lack of them). The blog, Fed Up With Lunch, eventually attracted the notice of nutrition experts like Food Politics author Marion Nestle, Ph.D., chef Jamie Oliver and his Food Revolution campaign, and chef Ann Cooper, the Renegade Lunch Lady, who followed Mrs. Q’s reports and lent their expertise. Here, we asked the author/blogger/lunch reformer/mom to help us make over a typically bad school-lunch tray.
Plastic cups of processed fruit in sweetened (often with high-fructose corn syrup) juice. Schools like them because they can sit on a shelf for six months, whereas “real” fruit has to be bought in season and served fresh.
Fresh fruit is the healthiest dessert for kids. A crisp apple is quick and easy, as is a bunch of grapes. Schools can serve oranges if they're first cut into wedges—with younger students, peeling an orange can eat up their entire lunch period.
Potatoes often count as the day's vegetable offering. Not to mention that a hot-dog roll plus potatoes makes for one starchy meal.
Something as simple as a serving of plain, fresh vegetables (nothing canned or frozen) is healthy and easy to eat. Even better: Start a school salad bar so kids can choose from a variety of veggies daily.
Sweetened fruit drinks or punches can contain more sugar (or high-fructose corn syrup) than carbonated soft drinks. Low- or no-fat flavored milks can be occasional treats and part of a balanced diet, especially for kids who won't otherwise drink milk
Plain, pure, low-fat milk is considered the best beverage choice by nutritionists and pediatricians alike. Ideally, it would also be organic and hormone -free, though that's an expense many schools might not be able to pull off.
High-fat mystery meat packed with preservatives, plus spongy processed white bread. Kids may like them, but they're a nutritional disaster.
Kids love tacos, and the handheld food is easy for them to grab and eat no matter how little time they have. When the taco shell is made with whole grains, and the filling includes lean beef or turkey plus fresh lettuce, tomato and cheese, this option is both yummy and good for 'em.
Find more healthy school lunch ideas!