Catherine’s school has a new catered lunch option. I’ve written this first paragraph several times now, trying not to sound annoyingly obsessive but by now, you all know that’s exactly what I am, right?  Or, maybe I’m just informed and want to inform others and that makes me annoying.  Either way, I’ve got to accept who I am and stop apologizing for it!  So let’s just stop pretending and get to it.

Naturally, I analyzed and scrutinized over the menu. Asked the caterer questions. Tasted samples. I really, really wanted it to work. Because if I don’t have to send Catherine with a lunch every day, that means less pressure, and more quality time together. I already stopped pumping last week, and not having to plan and prepare a lunch menu each week on top of working full time would leave room for more spontaneous weekend and weeknight fun. So – as I was saying, I assessed the menu, and here’s what I found.

Overall, I’m happy. The food tastes  good. It’s fresh and mostly homemade. And I specifically asked about the meat, which I was assured has zero antibiotics or added hormones.  I was not given the source of the meat.  The owner didn’t know and had to ask the “kitchen.”  So I plan to follow up on that.  But there are a few problems. There are no whole grains on the menu. Sure, the bread and pasta are called “whole grain,” but if you know how to read a nutrition label you know they’re actually highly processed and not really whole grain.  Surprisingly, it’s very difficult to find real whole grain bread at the supermarket.  I  buy it at the farmers market and freeze it.  Otherwise you’re left with the actual whole grains – brown rice, quinoa, oat groats, millet, hulled barley, etc and that’s really your most nutritious bet.

Also, the catered food isn’t organic.  Organic is an option, but they’ll only do it if parents request it across the board.  So Catherine would be potentially eating GMOs and pesticides for lunch 5 days a week.

Then, there’s a lack of quantity, variety, and quality of vegetables. In one month’s menu, I counted only 5 different types of vegetables. For example, peas, carrots, corn, potatoes, and tomatoes. Which are great, but what about the thousands of other varieties of colorful, delicious vegetables out there? Don’t our growing babies deserve to be exposed to those to, if we can? Each meal only comes with 1, at most 2, vegetables.  Aso, a kids’ caterer should know that celery, cucumbers, and romaine lettuce have very little nutritional value. And for toddlers, they require a good bit of energy to actually eat. So they just don’t make sense or belong on a menu for 1-year olds.  Finally, I noticed the caterer is using “baby” carrots. These aren’t real baby carrots – they’re “cored” carrots.  Which means they loose the most nutritious part of the carrot.  Why not buy real carrots and get the nutrition of a real carrot??

The meals are very meat and cheese heavy. Most lunches contain a meat and cheese. The caterer could save money by serving more beans, which are healthier anyway.

Filler. Many lunches include highly processed, packaged items like craisins (raisins with red dye and sugar) veggie straws (these are chips with food dye to make them look like vegetables), and graham crackers (I love graham crackers, but for a 1-year old these should be an occasional treat or emergency snack, not an everyday lunch item). Not only are these are snacks, not lunch, but they have almost zero nutritional value.  A child’s stomach doesn’t hold much, and I don’t want mine child’s to be filled with empty calories if I can help it.  I’m ordering lunch – not junk food.

I agonized for weeks over this menu, because I wanted it to work, but couldn’t accept its inadequacies.  So I resigned myself to continue making Catherine’s lunches myself.  I decided I WOULD become the most genius, efficient lunch maker the world has ever seen.  I’d just MAKE IT HAPPEN.  I felt pretty determined.  Until I had a lightbulb moment.  A compromise.  I’d simply supplement and substitute.  Every week I’d take a look at the menu, cross off items and add my own.  Here’s an example.

Chicken taco salad with corn and tomatoes.  I add chopped raw red bell pepper (which C likes) and avocado (which she some days likes, most days doesn’t but I keep trying) from home.

Chicken salad sandwich, carrot salad, craisins.  Craisins get replaced with real dried fruit without added sugar and dye – or better yet, a vegetable, since she gets plenty of fruit for snacks.

Turkey burger sliders, veggie straws, and applesauce.  Veggie straws (glorified potato chips) get replaced with roasted sweet potatoes (which C eats like candy).  Packaged applesauce gets replaced with sauteed squash (C can eat an entire pan herself – this girls LOVES sauteed squash the way my momma taught me to make it). Now if you think I’m no fun for taking away the applesauce – I’m only doing it because she gets homemade applesauce with her cereal every morning, so she just doesn’t need a processed version for lunch.

Three cheese baked ziti, carrots, peas.  I’d probably leave this alone.

Cheese quesadilla, corn, pinto beans.  Well, it makes me happy that we’re finally seeing some beans.  But again, more cheese.  Cheese isn’t that good for us, it’s kind of a myth that kids need tons of cheese.  Ask any doctor or better yet Doctor of nutrition.  Ask the scientists at Harvard what they think.  I’m not making this stuff up.  Anyway. I’d add a vegetable to this. Maybe halved cherry tomatoes.

It isn’t that I take out all the fun stuff and leave Catherine with boring old healthy stuff.  I still give Catherine plenty of fun treats.  I make homemade cookies or muffins every week to send with her for snack time.  They’re easy to do and I love doing it.  I just make sure they have nutritional value by using whole grain flours like wheat, brown rice, and spelt,  minimally processed sweeteners like maple syrup and honey, and plenty of nuts, fruits, and even vegetables.  And believe me – there are plenty of days when Catherine eats far worse than graham crackers for dinner.  But these days are the exception, not the rule.

So I feel good about our compromise.  I’ve noticed she isn’t eating the food at school as well as she eats what I pack for her, which makes me a little nervous but not too nervous, because I’m still supplementing enough that I think it’ll be fine.

Oh – I also send her with snacks every day, rather than have her eat goldfish, instant pancakes, and other nutritionally void snacks every day, several times a day. I send her with things like berries, melon, whole grain crackers, homemade muffins and cookies, green smoothies, and yogurt. She breastfeeds in the morning, in the afternoon when I pick her up, and right before bed. For breakfast she’s still eating her magic multigrain cereal with fruit or sometimes a breakfast smoothie or, today, her first toast with Earth Balance butter, honey, and cinnamon (I cubed it and put it in her snack cup – perfect self-serve breakfast that allowed me to get dressed and made her super happy!).  For dinner I try to make up for the lack of whole grains at lunch by serving a whole grain like brown rice or quinoa, with some sort of bean (usually tossed in a little soy sauce and a LOT of sesame seeds – delicious and high in calcium) and sauteed or roasted vegetables.

Next on my list…work on my own horrible sugar habits.  I take care with Catherine’s diet, I need to start taking better care of my own!

Also – I really need to start breaking this information down into more digestible (pun) pieces.  I do have a lot of good tips to share and it’d be easier for everyone if I’d dedicate a post to a real recipe – a healthy, yummy, easy, and best of all, FAST one.