Last week the USDA released new nutritional guidelines for school lunches as part of the Health/Hunger-free Kids act of 2010. I trust I am not alone in saying it’s about time. The new guidelines are meant to do lots of sensible things like increasing the amount of whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables while limiting the amount of saturated fat, calories and sodium in school meals.
For the past couple of months I have been teaching the cooking portion of a cooking/nutrition course for 8-10 year olds. I try to get them excited about cooking (pretty easy) and to make the healthy offerings exciting for them to eat (mixed results). While I am pretty good at predicting what foods adults will like, I am still in the process of figuring out what makes foods appealing to kids. If I have learned anything in this regard, I have learned that visual presentation is key. The color, shape and texture of foods seem to be as important to kids as what is in them. Strange colors and textures can be cause for suspicion, but on the other hand they can also make food more appealing. The calculation is complicated and more than a little mysterious.
So I thought, in light of these recent changes, it might be interesting to look at the new school lunch in a visual way. The first illustration I made is of the two sample lunch menus that the USDA provides. The second is all of those same foods for one week of meals, but this time organized by color. I arranged the foods this way, not to make an argument about the nutritional content of the food based on its color, but to look at the menus side by side, and see what this comparison teases out of these new changes.