School Lunch with Style
"Mystery meat" in the school cafeteria is sooooo last millennium. Nowadays, kids are more apt to find meals made with recipes designed and vetted by trained chefs, with ingredients that represent the best of the season and with "taste profiles" - as they say on Food Network - that leave kids asking for more.
Chef Shannon Gerasimchik visited Evening Street Elementary School in Worthington earlier this spring, testing out recipes on a sampling of hungry third-graders. Gerasimchik, the executive chef at The Golf Club of Dublin, is not only the chair of the "Chef in the Child" program for the American Culinary Federation, but also the father of three young boys. And while Gerasimchik, who is also opening Chik's Bare Grill soon at the Little Bear Golf Club in Lewis Center, knows the value of tabulating the net calories and the grams of fat, fiber and protein in a dish, he also knows that, with kids, you can't fake taste.
"I've especially been working with schools to help them learn how to handle the whole grains," Gerasimchik explained as he prepped his workspace in the Evening Street kitchen. "If you cook it too long, it doesn't hold up as well. It gets gray and mushy."
The whole grains that Gerasimchik refers to are part of the changing scene in school kitchens. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is rolling out new requirements for healthier lunches: In the future, all menu items that use grain products - staples such as pastas, tortillas and pizza crusts - will have to be made with whole grains. The exact timetable is still up for debate at the federal level, but school districts throughout the country are beginning the transition.
Critics charge that these new nutrition standards, which also include stricter limits on the amount of calories, sugar and sodium in school food, not only will drive up costs, but also drive down school-lunch participation rates because kids simply don't like the taste of these healthier foods.
But that's where Gerasimchik and his student testers come in. For his visit this day, he had premade servings of three dishes that are featured in a new cookbook, Recipes for Healthy Kids. The USDA-published book features recipes that were submitted to a competition by schools around the country. And he prepared a fourth dish with the students' assistance.
The three premade dishes included chicken Alfredo from Van Buren Middle School in Kettering, a vegetable lasagna from Liberty Elementary School in Powell and the contest's grand-prize-winning "Porcupine Sliders" from a Minnesota school.
The sliders are prepared with ground turkey, brown rice, chopped dried cranberries and small doses of onion, garlic, celery and even spinach. Dakotta Baillaregnon, Angelo Peters and Jack Matthews eyed them carefully, then started in.
"That's so good," Angelo said.
"I ate mine in one bite," said Dakotta.
When informed what the ingredients were, the boys were incredulous.
"It's interesting ingredients," said Dakotta, "but it's still good."
The lasagna was less of a hit, not so much because of the taste - thin slices of butternut squash and mozzarella cheese baked between layers of pasta - but because it didn't "feel" like the lasagna they were used to, the children said.
"It's the vegetables," nodded Shelley Warner, Evening Street's cook/manager.
"A different texture," Gerasimchik agreed. "It's the texture that's throwing them off."
Another group of children - Penelope Chalfant, Lino Paletti and Daria Bardus - then helped Gerasimchik create "Eagle Pizzas," an Oklahoma school's recipe for what is basically an open-face tostada. They had fun creating the layered, colorful dish, and the end product, once baked and devoured, got 12 thumbs-ups from the six kids.
Warner observed, "Kids eat with their eyes. You don't do something like get the pizza too dark."
You can download the Recipes for Healthy Kids cookbook for free. It includes the recipes for Porcupine Sliders, Squish Squash Lasagna and Chicken Alfredo with a Twist. Just go to fns.usda.gov/recipes-healthy-kids-cookbook-homes.