Vegetables Should Taste Good!


The New York Times ran a piece this week about the results of federal legislation mandating healthier school lunches beginning this year. Because of puritanical restrictions on fat and salt, the healthy food has no flavor and many kids are just rejecting it.

Monica Eng of the Chicago Tribune has also done fantastic reporting about the insanity that is lunch in the Chicago Public Schools. (Eng is everything a food writer should be–actually expending shoe leather talking to the cafeteria lunch ladies and the students.) Chicago regulations prohibit adding any salt to vegetables, when, of course, as the story I linked to points out, the vast majority of salt in our diet comes from processed foods, not from a pinch of salt added to something made from scratch. There is an additional irony in that the Chicago approach to healthy eating occurs in schools that generally lack kitchens that allow for the preparation of fresh foods. It’s all reheat-only.

So the kids throw their lunches out or eat out of vending machines. Talk about counterproductive!

If you want kids to eat vegetables, here’s a hint: They should taste good.

Our experience at the Lake Avenue Elementary School Garden Project is entirely different. We not only garden with the kids, we cook with them–and seriously! For example, faced with the world’s most beautiful green cabbage in early September and hot weather that suggested it would soon rot and be eaten by slugs, we made pierogi with it–namely, smoked pork and cabbage pierogi, as well as potato, ricotta and cheddar pierogi. We grew the potatoes, too.

This was the opposite of a low-fat, low-sodium meal. Serious amounts of sour cream, pork fat, and butter. But it was delicious! And a lot of kids who never particularly liked cabbage before now like cabbage.

In fact, we find that the kids in our increasingly popular club will eat almost ANYTHING they grow and cook. And I am including beets and bitter eggplants. My partner Carol Maxwell and I always make sure that the recipe is delicious. We are both food people without any fear of bacon fat or cream, olive oil or sea salt, and she is truly a kick-ass cook who expands my horizons as well as the kids’.

But the truth is also that the vegetables that come out of our garden are so delicious in themselves, that the kids will eat them without prodding.

My feeling is that until you have tasted locally grown or homegrown vegetables, you have never tasted a vegetable. So “healthier” school lunches made with tired sad produce shipped all the way from California, or frozen or canned vegetables, are probably not enticing.

Look, institutional cooking is hard. I understand that. But many of us live in places surrounded by superb local farmers. I would bet that if you tapped that resource, as my school district does, and gave the Food Service people wider creative latitude–and kitchens they could cook in–healthier eating would move out of the realm of theory and policy and into kids’ lives.


  1. If our kids palettes weren’t already over stimulated by processed food then the health options wouldn’t be rejected. I’m still shocked that pizza is considered a vegetable, because the sauce once was a tomato. Thats why we send our kindergartner off to school with a bag lunch, with an actual tomato! A big subject to poke a stick at. I look forward to reading all the responses.

  2. I know the women in charge of the lunch program for our local school district. A very health minded individual who runs marathons, lives on a farm, does home canning. She says they require 3/4 cup serving of vegetables which is more than she would eat at a serving and she likes the stuff. They are not allowed to make the much loved “lunch lady cookies”. So much food is thrown out it is insane.

    We discussed what we ate at school decades ago. This made us laugh because we ate junk. Chips and a soda. A candy bar. French fries. Stuff we did not get at home. Our home cooking was healthy. These kids don’t get healthy food at home for the most partl.

    I lived with walking distance of grade school and went home every day for lunch. I would beg to be allowed to eat lunch at school the day the had hot dogs. And in those days the teachers on lunch duty made you eat everything on your tray. Imagine trying to do that now.

  3. Good tasting food is a must, but it’s not the only challenge. If children are not used to eating healthy fresh food, simply putting it on a plate and giving them twenty minutes to eat it isn’t enough. Food culture is learned and learning takes time and resources. Just ask Mcdonalds how much time and resources they have spent convincing our kids that McNuggets are the way to go. If we want to teach this generation of children how to eat healthfully and help them redefine delicious (that’s a big if) then that’s going to take a lesson plan. (and some good food is going to wind up in the trash.)

  4. Ah, poppycock! There are some identified taste disorders, called selective eating disorders, that don’t like certain textures or flavors and calling it healthy isn’t going to get anything eaten by those people. Or by “supertasters”, which is an entirely different group. Look it up, people. I survived in school on milk and whatever poorly seasoned starches I could find, and always came home hungry. Never took a drink of a carbonated beverage that I liked in my life. Only alcohol I could ever stomach, even in college, was peach brandy….which, if you haven’t tried it, is more sugar than alcohol. The truth is, educate the kids on what they should eat if you want, but it isn’t going to change the fact they don’t like the taste. Don’t forcefeed them out of some fascist governmental cookbook. This is America for God’s sake!!!

  5. I have seen someone go ga-ga over a homegrown tomato–when they thought they hated tomatoes. What they hated was the pale, tasteless, faux-tomato in the supermarket and on the fast food burgers they’ve eaten all their life. There is nothing wrong with most people’s taste buds, etc.; we are wired to love good food (yes, also fats, salts, etc.,–and those are great too, in moderation) but we can recognize good over bad and get excited about it when we have the CHANCE. I agree with Michele, 100%, and I published an essay last year about a middle school girl who had never had a raw peach before who practically SWOONED when she ate the juicy, delicious, locally, organically grown one our school district 12 is now bringing into the cafeteria. (The essay was written by her teacher. And they run out of these foods, like fresh peaches, when they get them.) This isn’t about some “fascist governmental cookbook”–this is about opportunity and possibility and health. Some will get it wrong at first (the no salt ridiculousness) but that is to be expected.

  6. Not sure when a public school menu is “fascist” and when it isn’t, but it is clearer when those menus are dumb or not dumb. The food served should be reasonably healthy, but, as the post notes, it should taste good. Part of the problem is misplaced puritanism, and part of it is cheapness. We spend less on public school lunches than other developed countries, and the food is more likely to be crappy as a result. That’s why we use the centralized kitchen approach, and why it’s hard to include good quality fresh produce.

    Holding to unrealistic standards of low-salt, low-fat just compounds the problem, ensuring waste and a diet even more dominated by junk food.

    • Frank, I agree. Fat and protein satiates, lends greater flavor, and just tastes great. Carbs also can taste great, but I believe lead to overeating way too easily. Even the best, organic, tastiest homegrown fruit still packs a whopping amount of fructose. Put some animal protein, some good fats such as butter, virgin coconut oil, or extra virgin olive oil, salt and spices, and the whole game changes.

      That of course would be more expensive than the grain-based, carb heavy meals that institutions tend to serve, but that’s the way things go. Shouldn’t we be trying to at least feed our kids the most nutritious meals possible for their optimal growth and functioning?

  7. Worst comes to worst, the kids who are throwing away their lunches because they are unreceptive to change will consume that many fewer calories that day. One up the whole thing and remove the vending machines so that they don’t have that option, either. As Eddie Murphy once quipped: “If you’re starving, and somebody throws you a cracker, that’s going to be the best cracker you ever had.” Maybe the whole thing will prompt parents to pack their childrens’ lunch. Don’t have that kind of time? Make the time. Everybody seems to be able to catch the latest episode of “Dancing with the Stars”….

  8. Yikes, I must be the outlier of all outliers. I’m one of the very few who actually eats at least 9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day. I love vegetables naked and to me, they’re ruined and made inedible when salt and fat are added! The flavor in healthy food does not come from salt and fat!!

    I grew up eating lots of fruits and vegetables as well, unlike most of the people I know. We bought apples by the bushel from the apple orchard across the street (back when suburbia had apple orchards) and one of my jobs as a kid was to rinse and cut the green beans. Incredibly, we didn’t grow any of our own food. This was in the days before farmers’ markets, but New Jersey, the Garden State, still had tons of farm stands. We ate what was in season — which was also what was at the peak of flavor. My mother knew of one organic grower, who had a small orchard on the other side of town, which I remember because she liked to talk to the people at the farm stands and remarked how different the organic grower was.

    In the summer, most of my vegetables come from my organic garden. Most of the rest come from farmers’ markets. In a pinch I’ll buy frozen peas, but I think I love vegetables so much because most of the ones I eat are so fresh and flavorful, never overcooked, never doused with salt and fat. When I add anything, it’s herbs and spices, or the occasional bit of homemade salt-free peanut sauce with ginger and chipotle.

  9. Growing organic is the best way to get the most flavor out of your food. We are so used to tasting chemicals because of the nutrients used to grow them. Good article.

  10. I am a foodie, and I would LOVE to like tomatoes. But I don’t. For a while I had a great vegetable garden, and grew about 7 different kinds of tomatoes. I gave them away by the bagful. People at my work would stand at the photocopiers and eat all the cherry tomatoes in the first half hour of the day. They would rave about how delicious they were. I thought to myself “I’m a grown up now, I will once again try a tomato, I’m sure I will love my home grown produce”. I had to spit it out. Raw tomatoes have some sort of flavour, and texture that I just can’t stand. Cooked I’m fine. And I definitely was exposed to homegrown organic wonderful tomatoes growing up.

    But I would agree that there can be a huge difference between the taste of peas fresh from my garden, and peas from the grocery store, or from the discount grocery store, and the specialty grocery store. I had strawberries in the middle of winter that I paid a huge amount for, and expected to be disappointed, but they were fantastic. Sometimes it is worth it to pay more. I also didn’t know that I liked pepper until I was an adult. There is no comparison between the cheap powdered pepper and a quality fresh ground pepper.

  11. I have an organic garden and love the way the zucchini tastes as compared to zucchini bought in the grocery store. One year my neighbor grew zucchini using Miracle Grow. His plants were beautiful, much prettier than mine and his zucchinis looked gorgeous. Another friend tasted his zucchinis and said that they didn’t have much taste. I was beginning to think maybe I would go back to Miracle Grow until I heard that even though the zucchinis were gorgeous they were lacking in taste. I think it is great what they are doing at the Lake Avenue school. I wish more schools could grow gardens and cook with the kids.

  12. I hated veggies as a kid. And then, about six years ago, I ate my first heirloom tomato. Ecstasy. Guess who now owns a small heirloom plant nursery, growing more than 160 varieties of heirloom tomato plants?

    It’s so true–if we feed kids nasty, bland vegetables, they will never willingly eat well. If we empower them to grow their own food, they delight in tending, harvesting, cooking, and eating their green “babies.” I was the Master Gardener liaison for 12 organic school gardens in a neighboring city. I know school gardens work. And the kids’ excitement goes home with them, helping to encourage families to garden together. However, there’s a long way to go. Where my children attend elementary school, they can grow a garden–but they aren’t allowed to eat from it. Utter stupidity. We’re working to make changes, but this is the same district that blanketed Round-Up over every perennial I planted for the school’s butterfly gardens and A-B-C garden. Perhaps I don’t want my kids eating anything grown in that space.

    Let them have their sea salt and bacon drippings. And stop rewarding kids with school outings to McDonalds. Please.

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