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July 5, 2022 | Rome, Italy

The new brown

By | 2018-03-21T18:32:33+01:00 April 1st, 2008|"Suzanne's Taste"|
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mong my fondest university memories are mornings brightened by creamy, scrambled eggs, oat porridge, and real rashers of bacon. I often think about the delights contained in my high school brown bag lunches — sandwiches of leftover roast beef or sliced chicken on homemade bread spread with butter and mustard, followed by my mother’s famous sugar cookies or ginger snaps and a beautiful piece of fruit.

But I would bet that the number of kids who are lucky enough to have their mothers or fathers think up a nutritious and interesting lunch each day is fast diminishing. Cafeteria lunches are easier on working parents. The next question is, “What are they serving?”

One fascinating website actually grades schools based on their offering of “plant foods” — low-fat, low-cholesterol, vegetable and fruit dishes. Broward County School District in Ft. Lauderdale (fried plantains!) got a B; Houston (my home town) and Los Angeles (my ex-residence) got a D and an F based on hot dogs and hamburgers. It’s surprising to find that two of the most prosperous cities in the United States don’t provide healthy, attractive food to frequently overweight students.

Then again, good things can also go too far.

According to federal nutritional guidelines (used to help plan school lunches) it’s “much easier to build a nutritious diet from vegetarian foods than to attempt to build one from animal products, which contain animal fat, cholesterol, and other substances that growing children certainly do not need.”

What?

Who on earth decided that growing children don’t need some fat and some cholesterol (I’m not sure what “other substances” are.)

It is admirable and positive that schools feel the need to reduce the number of overweight children (60 percent, according to some statistics). But to think that a “veggie” burrito should be substituted for a healthful bean burrito or that meat sauce for pasta should be replaced with tomato sauce alone takes political correctness and applies it to diet (“due to the health complications associated with dairy product consumption, offering non-dairy, calcium-rich beverages is ideal.”) Low-fat cheeses such as cheddar, Jack, and Swiss are excellent sources of calcium. Far better than sweetened beverages that often fool the consumer with the words “natural,” “calcium-enriched,” or “no sugar added” (artificial aspartame and sorbitol can easily be replaced by a little fructose or honey).

And are school lunches really responsible for the transformation of American children from often slender, active, curious and imaginative creatures to sluggish, TV-watching and (consequently overweight) adolescents?

Maybe if American nutritionists took a quick look at Rome’s common sense menus they’d be inspired to liven up the fare in terms of taste and vitamins.

A first course can include pasta, rice, soup or pizza. For example: orzotto primavera, rice parmigiana, vegetable soup with pearl barley, or pizza margherita.

Second course might have meat, fish, eggs, lentils, cheese or cured meats. For example: Chicken breast with olives, cod fillet au gratin, omelette, mixed caciotta cheese, or thin meat slices.

Also, cooked or raw vegetables, fresh bread, and seasonal fruit.

I understand allergy problems and the attractions of a vegan diet, but if I could I’d have every child in America eat a bag lunch daily (with my mother’s leftovers, including cookies and fruit) or have them spend a year in Rome picking items from the menu above. How I’d delight in seeing a school menu with chicken and olives! To be fair, a school in Dallas served black-eyed peas and one in Florida dished up corn on the cob.

If I were a kid again I’d be hard-pressed to go for non-dairy lasagna with soy crumbles. I’ll bet even those admirable plantains at Broward could be punched up with olive oil, garlic, and a little peperoncino.

But if my mother were making the veggie burgers… hmmm.

About the Author:

Suzanne Dunaway, a longtime major magazine writer and artist, is the author and illustrator of "Rome, At Home, The Spirit of La Cucina Romana in Your Own Kitchen" (Broadway Books) and "No Need To Knead, Handmade Italian Breads in 90 Minutes" (Hyperion). She taught cooking for 15 years privately and at cooking schools in Los Angeles, and now maintains a personal website and a blog. She divides her time between southern France and Italy.

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