Tia McDonald is director of culinary operations for the Vetri Foundation for Children, a non-profit founded by chef Marc Vetri and restaurateur Jeff Benjamin that works to help kids experience the connection between healthy eating and healthy living. Chef Tia, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, has served as campus executive chef at the University of Pennsylvania, senior executive chef at the 2008 Olympics in Bejing, and as a development chef, formulating recipes with a nutritional focus. Follow her on Twitter @cheftiamcd
By Tia McDonald
The introduction of more nutritious foods to the federal lunch program this school year has brought news reports of kids going hungry rather than eating the added vegetables and whole grains, their spoofs and protests of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 immortalized on YouTube. What appears to be missing in the biggest overhaul to the school lunch program is creativity, flavor, and the vision to entice kids to eat food that is not only tasty, but healthy and educational. So here's a revolutionary thought: bring more chefs to school for lunch. The lunchroom can be a classroom.
When I think back on my journey in the culinary world, the original classroom was my mom's kitchen. I was drawn in by the scents and enticed by the clamor of pots and pans. Some of my earliest memories are of my mom cooking our Christmas ham. I watched as she pulled it out of the oven to make sure it wasn't dry, and as she whipped together a combination of rich, sweet flavors that created a succulent finishing glaze to be married with the beast.
My mother never excluded me from the kitchen. She never feared that I would destroy the meal or burn myself. She saw my interest and nurtured it. "Smell the ham," she would say, insisting that I get my face close to the meat, becoming one with the smells that surrounded me. "What does it need? What would you baste the meat with?" My 4-year-old palate had no clue what she was talking about. But when the family sat down to the feast, enjoying the orange, clove, and whole grain mustard glaze my mother created, it all clicked.
Many chefs have adopted this nurturing ability to teach children about food – not for money or celebrity, but because there is an unwritten understanding that food connects people. There is nothing quite like seeing the beautiful light that comes on in the minds of children when their interest in food is unearthed. Building relationships over food between adults and children isn't new. But it is a necessary part of encouraging children to make decisions about what they are going to eat. The earlier that trust in food – and in those who lovingly prepare it – is established, the more likely that the child will be exposed to incredible food over the course of his or her life.
This important step in nurturing the educational relationship between children and food is far too often missed when it comes to school lunch. The cultivating connection is replaced with data analysis and sub-par food. Instead of providing lifelong lessons about the wonders of food we accept industry mantras that would lead you to believe that children detest vegetables, and that foods that are good for you – or that don't come with a clever, kid-friendly marketing campaign – are going to be fed to the family dog. The potential excitement of trying new flavors and textures turns into misery when you're standing in line waiting for a five-compartment tray of food that you are told you have to eat. No sounds, no scents, no visual stimulation, just five different shades of brown. In this environment, what child is going to choose the three-quarter cup of raw broccoli florets – the alien substance that they are advised must be eaten to satisfy a government requirement – over a bag of potato chips?
Just as children must learn reading, writing and math, a quality food education is necessary for the transition to successful, healthy adulthood. And just as those children must have quality teachers to help them succeed, they should also have chefs in schools to build their foundation in food.
Every time I enter a school, wearing my chef whites, teaching kids about food and talking about what they are going to eat for lunch, I am met with wide-eyed, guiltless interest about what is going on in the kitchen. Not just what is going onto their plate, but the entire cooking process. They want to know what Swiss chard tastes like. There is always a resounding 'whoa' from the students, taken aback by the beautiful red, yellow, orange, and pink stalks of the chard, standing firm, holding onto its robust green leaves, and wondering why it grows that way. They want to know how to make pie dough, and how we got the lean, white flesh of the fish in that day's taco so tender without layering it in batter and frying it to oblivion. Most importantly, even if they don't like everything we prepare, they know that there is someone in the kitchen who cares enough to make them a good lunch without an undertone of freezer burn and neglectful scent of institutionalized food.
Chefs and chef-driven organizations all across the country want to unleash children's interest in food and could actually make the new lunch regulations exciting. At the Vetri Foundation, we use the lunchroom as an extension of the classroom, making lunch fun to eat and to learn about. I've heard countless stories of children (and parents) wanting recipes for what they've tasted to take home. We have met children who didn't know what a cantaloupe looked or tasted like, and now look forward to the warmer months, when an in-season slice of cantaloupe brings forth the sweet-smelling, juice-dripping goodness that no candy bar could ever compete with. A father shared with us his admiration, when, during a routine shopping trip to the grocery store, his son used his allowance to buy a cucumber. Then a tomato. Onions, peppers and cilantro followed, so he could make gazpacho – the cool, refreshing soup the chef had made for lunch at school – for the family. (Other kid-friendly recipes are posted here.) These lessons go deeper and last longer than the 15 minutes that most children are allowed for lunch.
As we as a society face an uphill battle against processed foods and obesity-related health issues, chefs can help. I promise, we will get your kids to eat their broccoli.