Friday, June 10, 2011

What's for Lunch: Uneaten Tilapia

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. schools lately have been serving tilapia on Thursdays on a fairly regular basis. You might think that's a great thing. Fish is a clean, lean source of protein and exposes children to something different from the usual routine of chicken nuggets and mac-n'-cheese.

But while fish looks great on the menu, it doesn't go over so well in the cafeteria--at least not at my daughter's elementary school in Northwest Washington. Yesterday I was careful to wait until most of the kids had eaten, then I took a slow walk around the lunch room. I saw only three kids who had actually eaten the tilapia. A couple others had poked at it.

Most of the trays looked like this one. As you can see, the fish hasn't been touched at all. Nor was the featured vegetable side dish, the "crunchy spinach," as Chartwells calls it, a mix of frozen spinach, corn, peas and sunflower seeds. It's a clever combination of vegetables--whoever thought of it deserves a hat tip. But the kids don't eat it.

What did they eat from this meal? From what I saw, this tray was pretty typical. The kids dove into the roasted potatoes and the whole wheat biscuit. In other words, they gobbled up the starch.

Kids love potatoes, of course. It's their second favorite food after pizza. And now there's a controversy around spuds because the new meal guidelines the USDA has proposed would limit servings of potatoes and other starchy vegetables--corn, peas, lima beans--to just one cup per week in favor of more green and orange vegetables that kids are much less fond of.

They also loved the watermelon. And what's not to like about that? I tasted the watermelon and it was delicious. So much of the fruit served in school isn't nearly ripe, but this watermelon was. This was a real treat.

The lesson I draw from all this is that menu changes don't mean nearly as much as what actually takes place in the cafeteria. You can put "healthier" foods in front of kids every day and still they'll only eat what they want and throw the rest in the trash.

I shudder to think how much uneaten tilapia D.C. schools sent to the landfill yesterday.


  1. Maybe they need to have a parents day when serving this so they see their parents eating it. Also schools can only do so much if eating healthy isn't a priority at home then schools can't do much to convert kids.

  2. Livvy, I totally agree. Modeling behavior from adults is really important, the point being that kids needs to be engaged in healthier eating, not simply presented with menu changes. But we can't continue to deflect this issue back to what families are eating. If schools are going to serve better food and expect to be eaten, they have do something to get the kids' attention.

  3. I do agree with Ed and Livvylove. When I was in Elementary school up to high school I never had lunch in the cafeterias and usually packed my own lunch. My parents started feeding me mostly fish (salmon, tilapia, catfish, mahi mahi) and chicken at a young age so now that I'm in college, I love it! Ive never been a big burger/french fry/milkshake eater and never been a fan of red meat. The parents are 70% at fault here if they are not setting a good example at home. Most children model their parents.

  4. Does your daughter's school have an active PTA? Might be something you could bring to them, the idea of having a parent there at lunch for every classroom at least once a week, to talk to the kids about the food and show them that it's edible.