Commentary: Time to give school lunch guidelines a new twist

I recently told a friend something about her son that my son had told me years ago.

When both our sons were in middle school, my friend would painstakingly prepare nutritious, well-rounded and, she thought, tasty lunches for her son to take to school. Each day, according to my son, this young man would throw away most or all of the healthy lunch his mother had lovingly prepared and get french fries, pizza or something from the vending machine instead.

Fortunately, the son managed to survive on the typical teen-age diet and since has learned to appreciate a little more adventurous cuisine. No doubt, his mom has been a good guide in that respect.

I hope other children are as fortunate. At least they now will have a better shot at getting a healthy lunch at school.

The federal Agriculture Department is overhauling its nutritional guidelines for school meals for the first time in more than 15 years. Under the new rules, school lunches will contain less sodium, more whole grains and a wider selection of fruits and vegetables on the side.

First lady Michelle Obama, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and chef Rachel Ray announced the new guidelines during a visit to an elementary school in Alexandria, Va., where they dined on turkey tacos with brown rice, black bean-and-corn salad and fruit. Ray had supplied the recipes.

"As parents, we try to prepare decent meals, limit how much junk food our kids eat, and ensure they have a reasonably balanced diet," Obama said. "And when we're putting in all that effort, the last thing we want is for our hard work to be undone each day in the school cafeteria."

I'm not so sure all parents are working that hard to ensure their kids get nutritious meals. I recall that, in our house, if it weren't for cold cereal, my kids would have gone hungry at many meals, especially when the after-school activities were piling up and it seemed like we all were eating at different times.

In this hectic world, it's hard to have a carefully prepared, nutritious family dinner every day. That's why McDonald's sells so many Happy Meals.

For some children, schools may play an even larger role than parents in helping to steer them toward healthy eating habits. Kids are a captive audience in school for about six hours a day, and they eat an important meal there.

School should be able to work with that. Maybe I'm crazy, but why shouldn't schools try to expand children's culinary tastes?

It always seems to boil down to an argument for pizza vs. salad with ranch dressing, unhealthy vs. healthy.

In truth, however, both cafeteria pizza and iceberg lettuce with ranch or thousand island dressing taste pretty awful. Even cafeteria french fries are mediocre at best.

I wonder what kids would think if they were served smothered pork chops, beef stew, onion soup, cauliflower with cheese sauce, green beans with toasted almonds, roasted beets, guacamole, something a little different for a change. What if we fed them healthy food that actually tastes good?

What if students went on field trips to a vegetable cooperative, a small pig farm, an egg-producing operation, a bakery, a cheese-maker? What if we taught them about the value of eating fresh food grown locally while also giving some idea about how food ends up on their plates?

Maybe we can turn them into little locavores who grow their own vegatables at home.

My friend's son is a perfect illustration of what often turns out the be the futility of putting good food in front of our children. We can lead them to it but we can't make them eat it.

But schools could do more than serve healthy slop instead of unhealthy slop. They could actually play a role in educating our children about the wider range of good things to eat than they encounter in the fast-food joints or, for many, in their own homes.

How's this for one nutritional guideline for school lunches: Surprise them with something healthy they have never had before and make it something they might like.