Learning to think leaner Nutrition: In sometimes subtle, sometimes straightforward ways, schools encourage students to eat more healthful lunches.

September 04, 1998|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

Whether students realize it or not -- and school cooks hope they don't -- school cafeterias this year are serving lunches that are leaner and lighter, not to mention legal.

Legal, because starting this year all lunch menus must meet U.S. Department of Agriculture dietary guidelines. That means less fat, more calories, and the proper levels of calcium, iron, protein and vitamins.

For two years, schools have been preparing for this. Look no further than cafeteria paperwork to see the change. Howard County's annual yogurt order has jumped from 10,000 cartons to 47,456. The annual bagel supply is up from 85 cases to 800. This year, 2 percent milk has been banned from the cafeteria coolers in favor of 1 percent.

In Baltimore County, no-fat soft pretzels are moving onto plates in place of the traditional dinner roll and pat of margarine. (Last year, school lunchrooms sold 278,500 soft pretzels -- up from 7,000 two years before.) Sales of frozen fruit bars, which have gone from 24,000 to 144,000 in two years, now compete with ice cream.

Baltimore City school officials estimate that their orders for fresh fruits and vegetables and whole-grain and multi-grain breads are up about 20 percent from two years ago.

Maybe pupils won't miss the hot dogs and bologna whose

presence on some school menus is rapidly becoming scarce. Maybe they'll look forward to fresh vegetables with dip and grab an apple from the fruit bowl for dessert.

But cafeterias aren't counting on it, which is why they are also relying on a little deception. Even students say that's a good ploy.

"They're not going to replace french fries with carrot sticks, but if they offer a vegetable sub, people will buy it," said Andy Gross, a 15-year-old sophomore at Wilde Lake High School in Columbia.

"I kind of hate to say it, but we really have to be sneaky," said Eulalia Muschik, supervisor of food services for Carroll County schools. "These kids really are not very brave about trying this stuff."

Although Maryland schools generally have worked hard over the past decade to raise their nutrition standards and experiment with new dishes, meeting the USDA guidelines for some has required an extra push. Schools here and across the country have readied themselves with a flurry of programs: from cooking classes on how to stir-fry and properly steam vegetables, to marketing strategies for making lunches more appealing to students.

Anybody can prepare salad, baked chicken and steamed broccoli.

But the real trick for cooks is to subtly disguise kids' favorites: Oven-browned potato wedges may substitute for french fries, vegetarian for ground beef lasagna, date cookies alongside chocolate chip, low-fat varieties of cheese on pizza and dressings on salad.

Cooks are preparing foods in smaller batches for freshness, are using herb seasonings instead of salt, yogurt instead of mayonnaise, applesauce as a fat substitute in baking, and crisp kale or fancy-cut fruit for garnish. More often, they are turning to ethnic dishes like gyros with chicken and arroz con queso (rice with cheese).

Most school nutritionists say they have no plan to do away with cheeseburgers or french fries.

"We're giving students choices," said JoAnne Koehler, director of food service for the Baltimore County schools. "We believe these kids should make the decision."

In the past, schools were less concerned with providing a lot of grain or cereal foods. The amount of bread in a sandwich was often sufficient.

"It isn't enough now," said Muschik. "They'll see pasta and rice, perhaps a bigger bread serving or more bread servings. When we serve tacos, the taco shells won't be enough. We'll offer rice or something else with it to get the calories up there.

"We can all certainly plan menus that are wonderfully nutritious, but if nobody wants to eat them, we haven't achieved our goal," she said.

In Howard County, food service director Mary Klatko said students have steadily improved their eating habits.

"What we're seeing in the dining rooms is they're taking these foods and eating them," she said. Students at Wilde Lake say they notice the change.

"Mainly, there's more green stuff, less sweets, more bread and more options," said Nik Jayaram, a 16-year-old junior. A couple of years ago, he said, the lunch line would include a couple of soups, three sandwiches and a salad, compared to today's options of "daily soup specials, seven types of meals, and three kinds of salads."

His clam chowder yesterday might have been thin on clams, but it was packed with vegetables. "They really seem to go out of their way."

In addition to disguising some of their more healthful dishes, schools have not abandoned the direct approach: trying to convince students in the classroom and the cafeteria of the value of a healthful diet. Some schools are offering rub-on tattoos with the purchase of a balanced lunch; some are having tasting parties to acquaint students with new dishes.

Nutritionists expect their task to get easier with time.

"We definitely have more kids who are vegetarian today than we had even a couple of years ago," Muschik said. "What's surprising to us is that it's the younger students, instead of just high school kids."

The results so far are promising, said Linda Miller, who heads nutrition programs for the Maryland State Department of Education. In the two years since the government announced RTC the new standards, she estimates the fat content of food in Maryland's school lunchrooms has dropped at least 3 percent to percent. Some schools report that consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables has increased as much as 25 percent in that period.

"I would not say we have any school district exactly on target, but some are within 5 percent of meeting the requirements," Miller said. "It really will take time."

Pub Date: 9/04/98

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