In the interest of full disclosure, I’m an ovo-lacto-vegetarian 90 percent of the time. My parents – particularly my father, a salt-of-the-earth, meat-and-potatoes man – willingly accommodate my desire not to eat red meat or poultry, so when they prepare fish, I eat it, in the interest of being a filial daughter and a good guest. I have on occasion flirted with being vegan, but I’m too fond of cheese and butter, and I have yet to master the art of baking without eggs.
Whatever my food choices on any given day, I am not militant about being vegetarian. I will happily educate people who ask why I don’t eat meat. I also offer friends, family, and acquaintances the chance to try good vegetarian food, whether my cooking or someone else’s. But generally, my thinking toward other people’s diets is “Live and let live.”
That said, I do wonder if my associates who hold the Western diet accountable for many of society’s ills might well be on to something. Case in point: I had three different fifth-grade classes in my room yesterday. Before lunch, they were challenging, but mostly exhibiting age-appropriate misbehavior – talking excessively, having trouble staying on task. After lunch – a turkey hot dog, baked beans, and apple slices – they were suddenly insane. One girl pushed a boy she said was annoying her. A boy accused one of his male classmates of calling another girl “a stripper.” (They’re in FIFTH grade. They don’t even know who a stripper IS, or they shouldn’t.) I began to wonder if maybe one of my close friends – a very outspoken vegan – might be right about eating meat.
School lunches often revolve around meat: hamburgers, sloppy Joes, hot dogs, chicken fingers or nuggets, pepperoni pizza, etc. Many schools offer a meatless option on Fridays, and some will offer one every day. Typically, those options are limited, though: peanut butter and jelly, grilled cheese, cheese pizza, tomato soup, macaroni and cheese.
My thoughts, for what they’re worth:
- The reason many kids claim not to like vegetables is not because of the vegetables themselves but because of the preparation. If you offer a seven-year-old canned Veg-All that’s still floating in God-knows-what or mushy, overcooked broccoli that smells like dirty laundry, can you blame the child for turning up his or her nose? Offer the same child cut-up raw broccoli and cauliflower with a dip, or steamed baby carrots and sugar snap peas, and he or she just might polish it off and ask for more.
- Try breakfast for lunch. Many breakfast foods – eggs, French toast, yogurt, fruit – are healthy and kid-friendly.
- If a child had a role in picking or possibly even growing the vegetables, he or she will probably be more interested in eating them. When I took Big Sister, Little One, and a friend of theirs to my cousins’ farm this summer, they enjoyed helping pick the broccoli, kale, garlic, and other goodies we took home, and they were even willing to try them when I prepared them the next day. (This from kids who typically pass on vegetables prepared in the Western way.)
- Don’t get me wrong. I love cheese and peanut butter. Love, love, love them. But that’s only the start of eating vegetarian. Don’t overlook beans, whole grains, and even (gasp!) tofu. The girls enjoyed the bean tacos I prepared a few times during the summer. Messy, but delicious.
I realize that with limited budgets, institutional kitchens, and multiple 20-30 minute lunch shifts, these present challenges. But I think the cafeteria staffs I have encountered can rise to the occasion.