Chef Cathal Armstrong discussed healthy school lunches

Aug 09, 2011

Chef Cathal Armstrong, founder of Chefs As Parents, chatted about healthy lunches for the back-to-school season.

Happy Tuesday, Post readers! We are delighted to welcome local chef Cathal Armstrong to today's chat on healthy school lunches. Along with being the magician behind Restaurant Eve and Virtue Feed & Grain, among others, Armstrong is also the founder of Chefs as Parents. Lots of questions piling up already so let's get going!

My three year old son, whom I am bringing up as vegetarian, is very picky. Also, his pre-school has serves meat for the main entree for lunch 95% of the time. I try to pack a vegetarian equivalent for him most days but he usually takes a bite and throws it away. Any good ideas on what I can pack for him?

Good morning,

Vegetables deserve as much reverence as all other food types. Probably the best you can do for you child is not try to pretend that your veggies are dressed up as meat but rather show them off for what they are. Buy the best you can find. The taste will help you have victory.

MCPS has been intransigent about improving school lunches. Do you have suggestions for public school systems and boards of education that seem to resist introducing healthier meals? Thanks for Chefs as Parents, what a great idea. Thanks.

One of the best things we can do as parents is demand changes. If we speak with a loud united voice we will eventually be heard. 

Sometimes I think my grandson enjoys just chewing, not on something like rubber bands, but something crunchy. Other than putting into his lunch potato or tortilla chips or fat-full veggie chips, are there foods (other than celery, which he dislikes), which which would delight my young chomper?

Young kids teeth are growing. Cold fruits and vegetables help soothe the gums. Apples cut in pieces are great, carrots etc. If you get them from a farm they taste better. 

Hi Cathal! So happy to have you with us. I live in Alexandria and am a big fan of all of your restaurants. Hoping you can help me with my question: My son goes to a private elementary school that won't let any of the parents bring in fatty snacks (cupcakes, brownies, cookies, cakes, all a no-go). This makes the classroom-wide birthday celebrations tricky.... I get the resist childhood-obesity thing, and I would never want to encourage an unhealthy diet, but what should parents be doing to still contribute with celebratory snacks while not force-feeding the kids celery during their special day? Help!!!

I don't get the banning of birthday cake either. We should celebrate life always. I think schools tend to have knee jerk reactions to problems sometimes. If we keep sweets to special occasions we will not have to worry about obesitiy as much.

Hi! Thanks for hosting a chat, this is so special! I just popped into Virtue Feed and Grain last week and found it to be so enjoyable and beautiful. Way to go. My submission is about allergies. My twin daughters are in second grade and it seems MOST of their classmates are allergic to something (wheat, peanuts, you name it). Many peanut-based snacks are no longer allowed (PB&J for one...) They sit at peanut-free lunchtables, they inspect everyones nap sacks because this apparently is a very serious trend. So, any suggestions for what to pack for lunch that isn't Lunchables (blegh!!!) yet still follows some of these new cafeteria guidelines?

All of these allergies that kids are having nowadays is very concerning. We should be more concerned about the causes. I never met any kid that was allergic to anything when I was growing up. Peanuts are an excellent source of protein. I mourn their loss in schools. Another good source is beans but good luck getting kids to eat b&J sandwiches. 

Maybe I'm stuck in the 70s when I was growing up, but lunches seem to be getting worse and worse for children while prices go up. How can we, as parents, help our children stay healthy and combat the price ranges? Like any parent, I believe my child deserves the best and healthiest food I can provide. However, sometimes it seems the schools don't share my same interest in providing healthy foods, and when they do, its very expensive. How do parents go about campaigning for healthier foods and low prices? It feels like an impossible task.... Is there any hope? What route should we take? Thank you for any of your thoughts! Margaret, Silver Spring

The biggest issue I see with school food nowadays besides the chemicals and preservatives is the amount of sugar the kids are consuming. Processed food tastes so bad that we cover it up with sugars to mask the bad taste. The more we demand fresh food the better off our kids will be. The best we can do is train our kids at home to enjoy fresh food. Menus in schools are determined by the demand from the kids. If the kids are taught not to enjoy so much sugar the menus items will change quickest.

What sparked your initial idea for Chefs as Parents? How did you get others on board? Would love to know a little more about how the organization works and what you've been up to. Such a great idea. Finally!

Chefs as parents is a new group. We are working on improvements tro the Alexandria shool program first and then we will try to replicate to other districts. We are hoping to begin effecting change in January of 2012. Our goal is to return cooking to the cafeterias instead of reheating of processed fooods.

Hi Chef, so wonderful that you're chatting with us today! Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule. My question stems more from the big picture -- what are your thoughts on children's health on a national level? Do you think that our children, on the whole, are becoming more healthy or less healthy? Do you think we are doing enough to maintain nutrition? Are healthy foods, in your opinion, reasonably priced? What does the story of children's health look like to you on a larger scale than just in local cafeterias?

Sadly our children are becoming less and less healthy. School lunch is not the only problem. Americas kids lack exercise and eat too much junk at home too. When I was a kid my mother threw us out of the house and told us to be back in time for dinner. We ran and played everywhere. Sadlly thats not really possible anymore, it's not safe in many places. So kids stay at home playing too many video games. We structure and schedule exercise into our kids week but not every parent has that luxury. The best we can do is ask ourselves how we can make our kids lives better than our own childhood was.

Hi Chef --thanks for taking our questions. I pack my 7 year old's lunch each day for school. Like most, I try to skirt that thin line between healthy, yet something he will eat. We've all see those fozen PB&J sandwiches (lots of sugar!) that you can just toss in the lunch box frozen and the kids can eat at lunch thawed. Would the same concept work for make at home sandwiches and wraps? What could I make and freeze that would be ready to eat for him at lunch at school? I worry the bread would get soggy or just not be tasty. I do freeze yogurt for him that he likes to eat during lunch. Any ideas?

My kids crave variety in their diets. Try starting to introduce international foods around their respective holidays like guacamole and salsa on Cinco De Mayo. The more you add exotic complex flavors at home the more they will enjoy them. 

My family has children in the Fairfax County Public School System and it seems they have a lot on their plate. Between funding for sports, extra-curricular activities, field trips and classroom needs, the cafeteria doesn't appear to be high on their priority list. I believe that it should be. I believe that healthy diets are integral to a child's academic success. How should parents with similar feelings to mine best express our concerns to the school boards without seeming insensitive to their other tasks?

I think one of the biggest misnomers we have in general about food is that healthy orgnanic food is expensive. That is just NOT true. The truth is is that unhealthy processed sugar, chemical, preservative food is CHEAP. And we insist on it being cheaper and cheaper all the time. When I was a kid we ate beef occasionally because it was expensive, now beef is so comparatively cheap that we eat 16 ounce steaks, thats one pound of beef often, thats one of the main reasons so many people are getting sick. We used to spend a lot more of our income on food than we do today.  

What would you say is healthiest option to feed your kids for an after school snack? My kids are picky...

Picky kids are hard to deal with. The best advice I can give you (and I understand that you may not like this answer) is make them not picky. You are the parent, you are in charge. My parents rule was that we were not allowed to leave the table until we ate everything that was on our plate. Don't turn your home into a restaurant, make one meal for everyone and insist that your kids eat what you feed them. It will be very hard at first but shortly they will understand.

In response to the poster who asked about birthday party ideas when cakes, etc. are banned (which I don't get!) - how about a make your own yogurt bar? Bring yogurt and lots of toppings (fruit, nuts, granola, etc.). Fun and healthy.

I like yogurt but most people don't. Especially not kids unless you load it with high fructose corn syrup but then you lose the value. 

When my kids were little pizza was a once in a while treat. Now that they are high school and college age they and their friends devour pizza which is very bad even for them every day, sometimes more then once a day. They buy pizza slices in school cafeteria, they go out for pizza after sports practices and play rehearsals and they are served pizza at their friends homes. Even home made pizza should not be eaten every day. Don't you think the time has come for pizza fad to go away? Why can't chefs come up with a healthier substitute that kids would enjoy and that would not hurt them in the long run?

I think one of the mistakes many people make is trying to make healthier versions of foods that humans have been eating for generations. Pizza is a great example. Wholewheat pizza dough is horrid. It's better to feed them real pizza made from fresh tomatoes and mozzarella that poor tasting substitutes, but you are right, NOT every day.

Oh, for crying out loud, schools! Of course you don't want cakes all the time. Why can't classrooms say the last Friday of each month we will celebrate all the birthdays and let parents share bringing in cake. Life without a Red Velvet cake is dull indeed!!

My birthday is next week, I want cake on my birthday not before or after. I think we should be pushing for smaller class sizes so we don't have 2 birthdays every day. In my high school there were 23 kids in my graduating classes. Too much vake was not an issue.

How can you teach people not to enjoy sugar.? I can understand teaching them to like other foods and not to eat so much sugar, but I can't imagine not liking as primal a taste as sugar. I do agree that your tastes change as you grow older; I don't care for milk or white chocolate now, as I find them too sweet.

Sugar is a really important element in our diets and should not be demonized. The problem with sugar and so many other elements like salt, fat, carbs is that we eat too much of them. Too much of anything is bad for you. I never advocate swinging the pendulum in either direction. We need to restore balance to our diets. 

How can we balance the different needs of individuals in creating healthy school lunches? My toddler needs as many calorie and nutrient dense foods as we can persuade him to eat, since doctors say he is under weight. Yet there are a number of kids that shouldn't be consuming such calorie dense food. How would you approach this in school lunches? How would you approach it at home (parents need lower calorie options, kids need the extra fat and other nutrients....)?

The answer here is understanding the calories in energy out equation. More active kids need more calories. It's hard to manage the individual needs of people in large groups, you're probably going to serve you kid best by making up waht they need at home. 

How do you go about finding like-minded parents in your child's school to work together and lobby for change?

Get involved, go to the PTA meetings. Ask you school to generate and eamil list of rthe parents. Communicate to them. Be a leader.

You might be surprised at who eats yogurt! My kids love the greek yogurt that has just a little fruit flavor in it.

I do too, I guess what I am trying to say is TCBY is not ice cream.

What are some of the major similarities and major difference you've notice between childrens' diets  in Dublin and the children in Washington?

We dont rreally have any industrial farming in Ireland, there are no feed lots or factory farms. We don't have a choice between mass produced cheap and artisan expensive, it's all fresh food. Mostly.

I've seen great recipes for whole grain muffins and the one's I've made are delicious. Esp when you add fresh fruit, they taste delicious and the texture is not so different from processed muffins kids are probably used to. That would probably work for schools that won't allow fatty snacks.

I think it's ridiculous that schools ban fatty snacks and yet feed the kids what they do at lunch time.

One of my go-to after-school snacks for my kids is popcorn. Whole grain, and scratches the crunchy/salty itch. I pair it with frut - grapes, apples, watermelon, whatever we have handy. The other tricky time in many households is the pre-dinner "I'm STARVING" stage. Our answer - you may have any vegetable you'd like! It's amazing how kids who won't touch vegetables on their dinner plates will devour them pre-dinner.

I don't agree with the notion of snacktime, anytime of the day. I believe it's better to feed kids 3 meals a day and when they are hungry they will be much more amenable to eat what you feed them.

Unfortunately, what schools serve at lunch is not just a matter of what kids eat, it is also a product of our abysmal funding of schools. But, if you want to raise taxes to fund good programs, nobody is willing to do it. It isnt that the schools don't know or don't care, it is that they are resource constrained

One thing we are trying to work on with schools is teaching them how to cook food again. If you roast chicken one day you can make chicken soup the next, but if you buy precooked chicken breast you don't have any by product to help lower your costs. Restaurant business 101

What would you recommend putting in vending machines at schools? This has been a hot topic in a number of school districts.

Vending machines have no place in schools.Take them out and replace them with water fountains.

I need your help! I am the mother of twin 3 year old boys who attend preschool. I work full-time and never learned how to cook! I need simple recipes so I can make healthy, edible lunches for my boys to take to school. Can you recommend any websites or simple cookbooks that might be useful? Thank you.

Try the new website. I think they have done a great job with the site and there are tons of resources there.

In addition to eating healthy, is there any push that you've seen to eliminate the potentially harmful effects of plastics from the menu at schools? Example: using sporks for hot meals which may leach hazards into the food?

Sadly no, but I agree that we should teach our kids to eat from plates with silverware.

My wife and I try to provide our daughter with a variety of healthy lunches, but our time to prepare lunches is limited and we want to make sure we're giving her something that she'll actually eat. Help!

Time is so much of an issue for parents nowadays, but you just have to make time. Your kids need you and deserve it, and so do you.

Some of the biggest problems facing parents who want their kids to eat healthy are a lack of time to prepare (if both parents work, or it's a single parent household where the parent works long hours), a lack of healthful grocery options (food deserts in urban and rural communities), and a lack of inexpensive options. What kind of work is being done to help families that know their kids need healthy options, but are frustrated at every turn when trying to deliver those options to their children?

Trust me, I know how this is. I work from 7am to 1 am, 7 days a week. But, as parents we still have to make a solution and unfortunately, there is not an easy answer.


On that note I have to run, thank you all so much for your attention and questions. Eat right!!

In This Chat
Cathal Armstrong
Armstrong, a native Dubliner, co-owns five restaurants in Alexandria and is the founder of Chefs as Parents, a D.C. initiative to make school lunch systems healthier. A father of two, he has dedicated himself to educating families about healthy eating and was one of the first chefs invited to the White House to brainstorm with chef Sam Kass on an initiative to improve school lunches. Armstrong is the board member of Fresh Farm Markets and recently moderated a discussion on "The Green Restaurant Revolution" with Ted Turner and the National Restaurant Association. In 2009, he was a Best Mid-Atlantic Chef nominee by the James Beard Foundation and has been in Food & Wine magazine's Hall of Fame.
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