Friday, May 24, 2013

School Lunch by Democracy Or, when that whole menu-voting thing goes horribly wrong

One last post on school lunches before the bell rings and it's summer!

“We got to choose the school lunch!” said The Kiddo.

“That’s great, honey, but you never eat that lunch,” I replied.

“I’d like to eat it that day, Mom, and will you please come, too? It’s a special lunch we planned and you’re always working. The other moms come.”

Oh, the Working Mom Guilt card. I hate that card. Almost as much as I hate school lunch. But, I was intrigued. The kiddo caught my interest with the menu she voted for; a stir fry, fruit salad, veggie dishes. I thought, Hey, maybe they are testing some new healthy menu items and getting the kids to participate through voting!

So, I moved heaven and earth. Or, at least a few meetings, and I went to school for lunch. One day, very soon, my child won’t want me anywhere near her at school, I reminded myself. I focused on how happy The Kiddo was to see me, and on my visions of actual food. I held her hand and walked in our single file to the lunchroom.

I was a bit shocked to see the school principle at the head of our line handing out brown paper bags to each of us. I was a bit more surprised to see the food selections; hamburger, hot dog, chicken patty, and the obligatory and neglected dried up carrot sticks in a bag and bananas. I was quite stunned to see potato chips count as a vegetable. And really shocked that kids could get a juice and chocolate milk both, and “ice cream.”

After bending double to take my seat at the kid-sized table, I unwrapped my “patty” as best I could with my knees up at table height. Looking at The Kiddo with my characteristic one eyebrow raised and a “WTF?” expression, I said, “So, where’s the stir fry?”

“Well, Mom, I voted for those things. But, the other kids all voted more for this menu,” she said.

“Oh.” And my mind left for a moment, contemplating the age-old philosophical question: which came first, the chicken or the nugget? If we want our kids to eat better, when do we quit feeding them the same old things with a resigned, “Oh, they won’t eat anything else.”

I love the idea of giving kids control in food choices. When it works, the voting method was designed to help kids feel in control of making healthier choices like chicken stir fry or veggie-loaded pizza on wholegrain crust. The key is that all the choices need to be healthy ones, not giving them the chance to vote more junk foods onto the menu. Hamburgers, hot dogs and chicken patties/nuggets/fingers/fries should not have been on the ballot with chips and “ice cream” as running mates.

The answer just does not get simpler: kids will quit eating nothing but these foods when we quit serving nothing but these foods. Further, when we do serve these occasional foods, they should actually be food, not chemicals and fillers binding together a bit of cheap food.

So, what was in that "ice cream?"

As an example, let’s take a closer look at that “ice cream” that was “made with loving care” as the ingredients list proudly claimed. Here’s what else that ingredient list had to say:

By regulation, the ingredients have to be listed in the order of the quantity of each. You’d expect “milk” or “cream” to be first. You’d expect it, but look closer and you may find that this product has more sweetener than milk.

Corn Syrup, Skim Milk, Sugar, High Fructose Corn Syrup
Wait. There’s more corn syrup in there than skim milk? Yes, and if you look closely there are THREE different types of sweeteners. Why not just sugar? Here’s where labels get tricky. By using three different types of sweeteners, it prevents the first ingredient to be listed on the label from being “Some Kind of Sweetener” instead of milk (or cream). Corn Syrup and HFCS are also thickeners giving the frozen liquid more of an ice cream like texture when frozen. Except that this substance, thanks to some other additives, can be thawed and refrozen with little change in texture unlike real ice cream.

A texturizer for processed foods, often made from corn starch.

Whey, Buttermilk and Cream
Actual milk products!

Cellulose Gum, Guar Gum, Carrageenan, Carob Bean Gum
Thickeners used to replace the fat in ice cream.

Natural and Artificial Flavor
Let’s give this one some context. “Natural flavor” does not mean that this is actual vanilla, for example. It only means flavoring derived from natural sources. For vanilla, this could actually mean castoreum, which is an extract derived from the dried castor sacs of the North American Beaver. I kid you not.

Now, exactly why it is easier to acquire some type of sac from the nether regions of a beaver than it is to grow a few orchids is completely beyond my comprehension. But, there it is. And, I would prefer not to imagine how this additive was ever discovered in the first place. But, we can all rest safe knowing that no actual vanilla beans were harmed in the making of this “ice cream.”

Cellulose Gel
Apparently, you can never have enough gums, gels and thickeners in your ice cream.

Vitamin A Palmitate
Synthetic vitamin added to replace vitamin content lost during the separation of the milk liquids.

The final ingredient, according the label, is “made with loving care.” Enough said.

Beth Bader is the author of The Cleaner Plate Club: Over 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love. You can find her recipes and food musings at her blog Ex-expatriates Kitchen.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Is a CSA Right for You?

by Beth

So, you’re thinking about joining a CSA. It sounds all locavore and romantic, right? But every day you are already getting surprised by some school project that your kid forgot to tell you about, or if you can just get your socks to match. Do you really want to be ambushed weekly by a vegetable, too? Here’s how to tell if a CSA is your best bet — and how to make it work for your busy family life.
You are comfortable cooking with what you have on hand.
CSAs are a great fit for you if you are at ease in the kitchen, keep a few pantry goods on hand and you know you can use whatever vegetable that arrives in some kind of salad, roasted, raw dish or soup.
What if this is not you?
Here’s the magic secret: cooking is just formula and technique. You can modify any recipe with what you have on hand. Do you have a recipe for slaw? That red cabbage or kohlrabi will work there. Do you have your grandmother’s chicken soup recipe? Toss in the week’s carrots and potatoes while its simmering to add some veggie heft to the bowl. Got beets or root veggies galore? Simply roasting these with a bit of olive oil and salt and pepper and they are table-worthy.
Still worried about veggie surprise?
You can still buy local at the farmers market, supporting many of the same farms that offer a CSA. As mentioned in the previous post in the series, you can even “subscribe” to a farm, much like a CSA with pre-purchased market bucks. Pre-pay, and then pick your favorites at the farmers market where you farmer sells.
Another great step is to learn what’s in season when for your area. Ask your farmer which of these items he or she is planting. Then, you can plan ahead for each week easily.
Some surprises in life are good.
Even when they are leafy and green. Over the last decade, thanks to our CSA habit, my family has learned about the joy of heirloom tomatoes; how much fun it is to shell peas together; and, that crunchy purslane is not a weed, but perhaps the best salad green ever. We’ve also fallen in love with microgreens and miner’s lettuce, baby kale and bok choi — things I may never have bought otherwise.
You can fit a weekly pick up into your schedule.
Shortening the path from farm to table is one of the main reasons to choose local foods. The good news is your lettuces that were traveling 1200 miles to your plate now only need to travel twelve. It’s just not financially feasible for your farmer to travel those extra miles to each of the 50-plus CSA members’ doorsteps, thus most farmers choose a central location in town where their CSA members can come pick up the weekly subscription. Others have pickup times at the farm location or the farmers market, or other delivery options.
What if my schedule is really tight?
Good news for you, many CSAs do offer a delivery service for an extra fee. Your fresh vegetables show up in a cooler on your front step. Like UPS, only healthier. Or, you can also do a “split share” with a friend who can pick up the weekly box and then divide the produce. If your friend is also willing, and wants a full share of the CSA, he could just pick up both boxes and you can get yours later. But, you might have to share some of your tomatoes as a thank you.
I still can’t pencil in the produce.
Our lives are loaded down with a lot! It’s hard to fit even breathing in some days. A CSA may not be right for you — yet. But, you can start toward that path by making time to add more fresh produce to your grocery cart. Or, better yet, make it even once a month to the farmers market. Even a monthly purchase of local food feeds your local economy by two-fold. You may find out how much you enjoy the variety and experience at the farmers market and make time for more local food as a result.
You’re good with a knife.
The crazy thing about those veggies in the CSA box is that they don’t ever come pre-cut, washed and individually packed in plastic containers. Some would say this is one of the best things about a CSA, given we generate about 31 million pounds of plastic waste per year in the US. Most of which cannot be recycled.
Of course, this does mean some added prep work, breaking down those veggies into clean, ready-to-cook pieces. Personally, I find my “chop time” kind of like therapy from my day job. The bits and scraps make fantastic compost for my own “local food” garden out back.
No thanks, I like my fingers where they are.
Did you know you are actually less likely to cut yourself with a sharp knife than a dull one? Knife skills are easy to learn and there are a lot of online videos to guide you. Not only will you be able to get that CSA basket prep work done, but every time you cook, you’ll save time and be more efficient just by learning a few easy techniques.
I still don’t have time.
Many hands make the work light. No, really. Every Thanksgiving, the first list I make is the menu and “shop list.” The second is the “chop list.” My spouse and I then split the knife duty and get the prep work done in advance. It’s a great system, and kids can even help with some of the easier prep tasks like washing and peeling, or shelling peas and fava beans. Older kids — if responsible, and based on your parental judgment — can even help with the chopping part. Make good food a family activity.
Why do you, or don’t you, participate in a CSA? Are there tips you can share for how to make your diet more local and still do-able when busy? I’d love to hear them!
Beth Bader is the author of The Cleaner Plate Club: Over 100 Recipes for Real Food Your Kids Will Love. You can find her recipes and food musings at her blog Ex-expatriates Kitchen.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Spring Green (and White): Mixed Greens, Herbs and Soba Noodles with Asian Dressing

I always say that spring's first burst of greens is Mother Nature's way of reminding me that I need to get in a swim suit soon. It's a bit hard to tell myself this, however, when there is snow on the ground in May. I'm really going to miss spring this year. It's my favorite season we are skipping.

Ironically, this is our first year trying a "spring CSA." While we should be seeing some sexy new veggies that hearken the start of early summer, we are still getting March's bounty of greens, greens and greens. I love greens, so its not all bad. And I have a bit extra around the middle with the extra long winter.

(Well, the winter and this unfortunate moment where I decided to try both P90X and an insanity work out in a day, then could not bend over to tie my shoes for a couple weeks or go for a spring training run for six weeks.)

Salad, anyone?

This salad is a great way to use up a large amount of mixed, hearty greens in early spring. Think beet greens, turnip greens, baby kale, chard, bok choi, cabbage leaves all in one bowl. 

Soba Noodle and Greens Salad, Ginger Soy Dressing

For the salad:

At the farmers market now:
1 pound mixed early spring greens, washed and chopped
1 bunch scallions, white parts and 1 inch of green chopped
1 bunch early garlic, or garlic scapes, white parts chopped
1 bunch mint, chopped (it's already up and growing despite the cold)
1 bunch cilantro, chopped, (found this at the market amazingly)
3 carrots, shredded
1 small cucumber, (greenhouse surprise!) diced

From the produce section and store:
1 bunch Thai basil (might not find this at the farmers market yet)
1 red pepper, diced
1 package buckwheat soba noodles, prepared

For the dressing:
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup tamari soy sauce
1/4 cup white vinegar
1 tsp. grated ginger
1/2 tsp. powdered mustard
1 tsp. chili flakes
2 Tbs. honey
1/2 cup avocado oil

Toss the mixed greens, veggies, herbs, and prepared noodles in a large bowl. Store separately from the dressing if you want to eat this salad for a few lunches. It makes enough for about 12 portions and keeps well for a few days as long as the dressing is stored separately.

For the dressing, whisk all the ingredients except the avocado oil together. Then, whisk in the oil to emulsify. Serve each 1 cup portion of salad with 1 Tbs. of dressing.